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Enterprise or Public Sector Investment in National Lambda Rail Presents a Unique Opportunity

Sometimes in our worries about the Duopoly, we fail to recognize that some extraordinary wealth of opportunity sits right underneath our noses. National Lambda Rail (NLR) is one such case. About six months ago I wrote in some detail about NLR and what made this entity different from previous attempts at research networks in the US. That interview with NLR founder and CEO Tom West maybe downloaded in its entirety here [PDF].

NLR runs on a philosophy of a user owned and administered research network. Intrernet2 (I2), during the ten years of its existence, has run on the basis of first a Qwest donated backbone known as Abilene and since November 2006 on the basis of a seven year managed services contract with Level 3 Communications.

The predominant membership of both NLR and I2 are an overlapping set of about 200 college and universities. For nearly three years now some of the members of both networks have bemoaned the "problem" that higher education is being asked to underwrite two sets of presumably duplicative high speed network infrastructure. On again off again merger discussions have led to some strange results that I have recently documented in my blog.

The academic infighting that has dominated these discussions has obscured something that is I contend of profound importance. The issue here is Internet based versus telco based. Lambda Rail owns its infrastructure via a 20 year IRU on a fiber pair covering virtually all of Level 3's national foot print. NLR lights and maintains its fiber. Internet2 rents — that is to say it buys services from Level 3. The owner that controls its physical infrastructure at the edge has far more freedom and can operate at much less cot than the renter (I2) who buys a SERVICE from Level 3.

What is more NLR has a unique and unprecedented resource in its national fiber pair. It owns a national-facilities-based backbone. It is not dependent on any agency to give it permission to change its equipment or light a new lightwave. No mama: 'may I?" It just acts in the interests of its members. Member controlled it still finds the ability to light new services and innovate at the edge as with the proposed Commons Cooperative backbone project.

Yesterday Tom West announced a welcome agreement with Canarie — Canada's research network — stating that "they have agreed to partner to expand each other's network infrastructure and further enable international research and collaboration." Continued West:

"The telecommunications sector is experiencing resurgence. Many of the 'dark' areas of unused networks are being used again, and there is increasing competition for bandwidth among public and private sectors worldwide. It is becoming a scarcer commodity every day, and as a result NLR is becoming more valuable every day for additional partners and organizations that could greatly benefit by having access to a privately owned, dedicated high-speed network infrastructure."

Here Tom is focusing on a simple fact that folks in the research communities find difficult to grasp. He put NLR together in 2001 and 2002 at the peak of the bust when Level 3 and others with fiber were desperate for any income and would sell IRUs covering their network foot prints. Since then, enormous drops in the cost of lighting fiber and increases in the wavelengths that it can be made to carry have rendered an iIRU on a fiber pair very close to a lease on unlimited bandwidth. NLR with its fiber pair will never ever have to buy additional services from Level 3 until its IRU expires. Google likely has done something very similar with its own set of IRUs. But Google isn't talking and isn't selling anyone else access.

In yesterday's press release, Tom West is pointing out to savvy CTOs that he controls a national optical foot print where any entity public or private that needs a national 10 gig or higher backbone and is willing to play by NLR rules can make an investment in and become a national member of the NLR 'cooperative.' In return for such an investment, the new member can acquire its own light wave(s).

NLR understands that broadening its financial base will ensure that it can remain financially independent of I2 and install late next year new optical equipment that may enable it to increase by as much as 400% the number of lightwaves offered over its entire footprint.

Enterprise and public sector CTO - CIOs who truly "get-it" have a unique window of opportunity to talk to NLR about becoming members of the only national optical facilities based network left in North America. They may well find that in the next 10 to 20 years they never again will have such an opportunity to build independent infrastructure and to do so in such a way that they can get their own light waves at substantial discounts. They need to understand that NLR's charter does not prohibit it from having commercial for-profit members.

Disclaimer: NLR is a single subscriber to the COOK Report. This is the only relationship I have with them — financial or otherwise.

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VINTON CERF
Co-designer of the TCP/IP Protocols & the Architecture of the Internet

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