UT-RGV fiber optic ring to serve as information backbone

They may only be as thin as two strands of fishing line. But for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, two tiny fibers are poised to transmit all the information flowing between its campuses.

UT-RGV will employ two fiber optic cables — among 50 currently available — to create an ultra-high speed Internet backbone at its campuses across the Rio Grande Valley.

“It really eliminates the walls,” said Jeffrey Graham, the new university’s interim chief information officer and vice president for information technology at UT-Pan American. “When you go from Rio Grande City to South Padre Island ... you can’t support that any other way than putting in infrastructure to move the data and not the people.”

Last month, The Brownsville Herald reported that the UT System would connect SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica to the existing data ring.

University officials worked with the UT System Office of Telecommunication Services to assess infrastructure required in Edinburg, Harlingen and Brownsville to anchor the 40 gigabits of bandwidth, quadrupling the previous data capacity at each location.

Clair Goldsmith, UT-RGV chief information security officer, called the arteries of data spanning 166 miles around the Valley “a game changer.”

But deploying the remaining 48 dark fibers could be the stuff of science fiction, he said.

It may sound outlandish, Goldsmith said, but he foresees the possibility of a keynote speaker addressing all campuses at once — via hologram.

”We’re not that far from it,” he said. “We have the potential to be something entirely unique going forward.”

A 1960 Harlingen High School graduate, Goldsmith left the Valley to study, eventually working on NASA’s Saturn program, which was the first stage booster rocket for the Apollo project in Huntsville, Alabama, his sophomore year, he said.

He was sure the remoteness of the Valley would prevent it from participating in such scientific ventures. He’s glad he was wrong. Now, the university’s data transfer speed out from the Valley will also increase to a 10 gigabit connection — more than six times its prior speed.

The fiber line could also be used by cities to provide wireless Internet to the public, as well.

“One of the things we could look at doing (is) our own Wi-Fi,” Goldsmith said. “We could partner with cities and towns and share Wi-Fi. Corpus Christi and Austin both provide Wi-Fi for citizens.”

Such fast speeds are necessary to move forward with the state’s investment in space exploration at SpaceX, which is constructing a launch site east of Brownsville, and cutting-edge research, Graham said.

“SpaceX couldn’t do what they needed to do if they didn’t have a high-capacity pathway to them,” Graham said.

Valley Telephone Cooperative laid a $22.4 million, 166-mile fiber ring after receiving a $15.7 million federal grant award through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program in 2010. The initiative was part of 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“The big expense of fiber is putting it in the ground,” Graham said. “For us to use that fiber, we have to buy switches and transponders on both ends. That’s the cost we have. It’s very little compared to actually running fiber from (Edinburg) to Brownsville.”

The fiber optic line puts the Valley on par with other big urban centers with similar infrastructure in place, said Jerald Hughes, chair of UTPA’s computer information systems department.

Ultra high-speed internet is “becoming the standard for those who want to be on the forward edge,” he said. “If we’re going to just follow and react, we will get whatever’s left over.”

The new network will change the way information is used in research, instruction and health care.

“There are things that it will help us do, in terms of serving students and patients, by taking education and health care to the people more rather than them coming to us,” Goldsmith said. “Once you start doing it, you don’t have to do it just between the Edinburg, Harlingen and Brownsville campuses. You can now go from any classroom into the home, or into the colonia.”

Data is budgeted in four 10 gigabit increments to accommodate video, university logistics, research and Internet browsing. Officials reckoned they’d need just over that to stream every class at both Edinburg and Brownsville during peak time to all enrolled students.

Campuses currently lack cameras or audio equipment for universal streaming, but the fiber cable will serve as a foundation.

“We’ll be able to approach research or education where it’s occurring in one place, yet we can provide it to multiple locations all over the Valley using our own private network,” Goldsmith said.


Daniel A. Flores     May 3, 2015