August 19, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

The PennREN fiber-optic network criss-crosses 50 counties in Pennsylvania.

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When Param Bedi, vice president for library and information technology, came to Bucknell University from Philadelphia in 2008, he was chagrined to learn he had access to greater internet bandwidth at his home in suburban Philly than he did at his new office. Six years later, Bucknell's internet speeds ranked 14th among all colleges and universities, and the University is spending less for the service.

The difference, Bedi said, has been KINBER.

Funded by a 2010 grant of nearly $100 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), of which Bucknell is a charter member, constructed a high-speed, fiber-optic network with 48 strands extending 1,800 miles through 50 counties in Pennsylvania.

That network, called the Pennsylvania Research and Education Network (PennREN), went online last year and now comprises 60 member institutions. At a community update Aug. 14 at Bucknell, both current and aspirant KINBER members discussed further expansion of the system, and how many more organizations could benefit from the top-tier internet access Bucknell already enjoys.

"Our ultimate goal is to allow organizations within Pennsylvania to dream about what they would do if they had unlimited access to network bandwidth," said KINBER Executive Director Wendy Huntoon.

When Bedi and the other charter members of KINBER's board began envisioning a better network five years ago, they already had the needs of their surrounding communities in mind, Bedi said.

"We were not looking out for our individual interests," he said. "We were looking out for the interests of Pennsylvania. What is it going to mean for health care? What is it going to mean for economic development?"

While Bucknell is currently the one of only two institutions in Union County connected to PennREN (the Bucknell University Entrepreneurs Incubator is the other), the network is already generating a positive ripple effect, said Dennis Hummer, resident Bucknell University Small Business Development Center consultant at the Entrepreneurs Incubator, which currently offers 12 startups access to the network, inclusive in their rent at the DeWitt Building in downtown Lewisburg.

"The incubator focuses on technology based startups, and many have a great need for internet bandwidth," Hummer said. "This high-speed internet connection allows them to backup all of their files off-site and provides an extra layer of security — and it's very affordable."

"From a business standpoint, providing high-speed internet is going to set us apart from other areas," he added. "Our ultimate goal is to support the economic development of our area. We've got to make sure we have the resources in place to provide that."

Param Bedi, vice president for library and information technology

Connection to PennREN also allows access to Internet2, a national high-speed network with 93,000 community network hubs, providing opportunities for live internet video-conferences and symposia, digital archiving, and distributed teaching and learning. Bucknell is considering joining the network, Bedi said, something that wasn't possible before KINBER. Tapping into the network would also allow local school districts to join the 60 percent of K–12 schools connected to Internet2.

John Mathias '69, a Union County commissioner and Bucknell trustee, challenged KINBER and its member institutions to expand the network's ripple further.

"Think about how KINBER can be exploited in terms of small business development opportunities," Mathias said. "We think KINBER is a tremendous asset, and I challenge you to think about how that can be utilized."

KINBER Member Relations Director Ken Barber said other local organizations have expressed interest in connecting to the network, including the Union County Government Center, area public schools, Evangelical Community Hospital and, in particular, the Public Library for Union County

"Libraries have become the critical lifeblood in a lot of communities," Barber said. "They are the technology centers."

On campus as well, access to PennREN's high-speed connection has already had an impact.

"I leverage the speed every day — in my field, it's just an expectation," said Professor Stu Thompson, electrical and computer engineering. "Really, what I've noticed is that there haven't been any problems. I look at the usage all the time, and it's just wide open."

Greater bandwidth has allowed Bucknell to move a variety of services formerly housed in on-campus servers — including University email, all library systems and credit card processing — into the cloud, Bedi said. Faculty have also increasingly begun using web-based videoconferencing to bring speakers from well outside the area into their classrooms.

"This opens up opportunities for our faculty which were not possible before because we didn't have the infrastructure," Bedi said. "It's still in its infancy, but they are using it more and more."

The University is looking to further exploit the network through the Keystone Digital Humanities Initiative, a new project Bucknell is spearheading. The collaboration with other Pennsylvania universities, including Penn State and the University of Pennsylvania, among others, will use PennREN to pool infrastructure, resources and expertise, Bedi said.

Thompson added that he is particularly intrigued by opportunities for the University to use the network to build awareness of and remote access to Bucknell.

"Prospective students on the West Coast might think, 'I can't get to Bucknell,' and because of that we might not be on their map," he said. "We could do a virtual open house, online virtual tours or online interaction with faculty, and offer exposure to Bucknell to students who can't get here."