California’s Research Network Connects Science and Community

Louis Fox, CENIC CEO

By Susan Rambo. CENIC — the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California — wants to connect the state of California into one giant wireless mesh network. With 20 million users, non-profit network operator CENIC (pronounced “scenic”) may be in a good position to build that network. But they aren’t doing it on their own. Far from it.

CENIC is part of a large community of public and private entities working to improve connectivity throughout California, an effort that has links to national and international projects. It all started with — and is grounded in — researchers. CENIC is governed by its charter members, California’s research institutions.

Since 1997, CENIC has provided networks for those researchers. Now with over 8,000 miles of optical fiber, the nonprofit operates the high-capacity network fabric for California research institutions, California Research and Education Network (CalREN). The fabric consists of broadband connections, upon which last-mile wireless can be added if needed. Eventually that last mile may include 5G wireless technologies.

CalREN offers 100 gigabit Ethernet (GbE), mostly via dark fiber, to researchers in California public and private research institutions (Stanford, California Institute of Technology, University of Southern California, University of California). State universities, community colleges, K–12 were added to the network in the early 2000s, followed by public libraries and cultural assets. CENIC aims for a minimum of 1 Gbps symmetrical regardless of fiber or wireless on any connection it provides

The high bandwidth is important to researchers who need to move data — lots of data.

“An awful lot of data is being collected by sensor nets and other kinds of data-intensive scientific tools. Historically [researchers] had to use sneakernet to get at the data,” CENIC’s President and CEO Louis Fox told RCR Wireless News. Now researchers have CalREN, which provides high-bandwidth connections.

“Where possible we’ve made fiber connections and in other cases we have worked with wireless providers to get fixed wireless and high-bandwidth fixed wireless to the sites,” said Fox. “We try and get as much bandwidth as possible.”  

CENIC typically asks for symmetrical bandwidth.

“Where possible a minimum of one gig symmetrical is our goal. It isn’t always possible in some of these sites because they’re rural and remote and we’ve worked in particular with GeoLinks — a very innovative private sector fixed wireless provider,” said Fox. 

The research platforms extend beyond California’s borders. The National Science Foundation recently funded Science DMZs — networks for Big Data transfers from supercomputers. The NSF is funding Pacific Research Platform (PRP), through UC San Diego and UC Berkeley.  Fox agrees that CENIC’s PRP is a testbed for other Science DMZs throughout the country.  

“We’re part of a conversation that involves other regions of the country that are beginning to roll out what was done here in California,” said Fox.  

CENIC also collaborates with the Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), run from LBNL (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), which connects to 40 Department of Energy sites. On a larger scale, CalREN is part of Pacific Wave — an international collaboration to connect researchers around the Pacific Rim. CENIC’s CalREN networks also work with Internet2 (which runs the national backbone network) and Pacific Northwest Gigapop, nonprofits that both serve networks of researchers and educators. CENIC also supports California Telehealth Network and fire and safety initiatives and research throughout the state. 

CENIC also supports the efforts of California Cities Data-Sharing Project, and the Big Data, Big Cities Initiative, for connecting California cities.

Rural, farming communities 

Bringing more people access to the network, including rural communities, is a goal for CENIC, although not an official mandate. The nonprofit helps bring better internet access to rural and remote parts of California.

“There are these tremendous opportunities for being part of this new economy regardless of where you are. When we’re talking about the rising generation, the goal is to ensure that all Californians have access an opportunity,” said Fox, adding, ”we work with our carriers both wireless and terrestrial to do last mile connections to schools, to libraries and to community colleges.”

Proving the demand in rural areas starved of wireless Internet access, Fox and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s broadband analyst Robert Tse, who spoke with RCR Wireless News recently, report seeing people in rural areas outside public libraries in lawn chairs, on the library steps or in their cars after the libraries were closed, accessing the library’s wireless broadband connections.

“It’s such a critical resource for communities,” said Fox.

Connecting farmers and rural underserved populations may go hand in hand. CENIC is working with UC ANR (University of California’s Agriculture and Natural Resources division) to improve the abysmal connections at the nine UC ANR extension centers where field research is done on crops. A recent boost of the fiber capacity and a low-cost addition of a wireless network in a field at UC ANR’s Kearney research area near Fresno has Kearney researchers thinking they could use the connected field as demonstration for a nearby rural town to get it connected at low cost.

“We’ve moved into this whole arena of wireless extensions of the backbone network for three main areas,” said Fox. Connecting the community through libraries and schools is one. Second is helping researchers work on emergency systems such as fire and earthquake warnings. Third is precision agriculture. “That’s where UC ANR comes in,” he said.

For farmers, all the sensors and data need to be collected and processed.

“Those sensors need direct access to a network so that both researchers and farmers can have immediate access to the data and then subsequently to the analytic tools which make sense of that data,” said Fox.

Right now CENIC is mostly broadband, using fiber.

“Historically, we have focused on terrestrial infrastructure. We run a pretty significant broadband backbone with multiple hundred gigs connecting roughly 12,000 institutions in California,” said Fox. With the help of GeoLinks, a private company and like-minded partner, CENIC is adding wireless to the last mile of their fiber networks. “GeoLinks is a very innovative private sector fixed wireless provider,” said Fox.

Fox hesitates to embrace the hype around 5G.

“I don’t really know about the applicability of 5G for these at least initial precision agriculture applications. … As for technology, we only want the one that works best for the occasion. Right now, for us it’s been a big step to get into fixed wireless and again we don’t we run a fiber network. We work with either the researchers or with the private sector to connect them via fixed wireless. They connect to the nearest point of presence on our network.”

How it started 

“We wanted to smash distance and we wanted to smash time,” said Stuart Lynn, the CIO for the UC system in the 1990s, in a video (see below). “We wanted to break those barriers down to facilitate really effective research and educational collaboration.” 20 years ago, Lynn wanted to tie all the California university networks together in a high-quality, private network.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) originally funded the networks for California universities Caltech, Stanford, University of Southern California, and the University of California in 1996-1997. NSF continued to fund a network through CSU that eventually because the CalREN NOC in 1999.  “What’s great about [CalREN] is you’re connected to a regional national and international fabric of research networks,” said Fox. “That allows access to data for scientific instruments and to scientific and agricultural collaborations across that fabric and it’s a dedicated fabric for research. So that means that your data doesn’t have to transit the commercial Internet. You’re able to use this regional, national, and global fabric.”

On-fire examples of network use 

CENIC recognizes accomplishments from the projects and systems researchers and government officials devised using the network.

Fire-related works using the CENIC network are HPWREN, an effort of UC San Diego and Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

”They have really created a wireless mesh in San Diego County that is absolutely critical for those communities, particularly around wildland fire and especially to give first responders situational awareness of what’s going on with the fires,” said Fox.

Alert Tahoe is a similar effort in Northern California led by University of Nevada Reno, which puts sensors, high-def cameras and instruments around Lake Tahoe.

“They have dealt with literally hundreds of fires,” said Fox.

Project Wifire, run by U.C. San Diego, uses San Diego’s supercomputing center to collect data on what wildfires do, using ground telemetry, weather data and satellite data the system collects. The supercomputer produces predictive analytics about how newly started fires will spread, which can help with evacuation and firefighting.

“It is increasingly a critical tool because when you understand that for your first responders, for instance, the tool is surprisingly accurate,” said Fox.

“California stands as a test effort for a civic research platform and the testbed for a lot of the other community efforts that CENIC and others are involved in,” said Fox. “There’s an incredible collegial and collaborative spirit between and among groups focused on broadband access… there’s a real esprit — a desire to figure out how to solve these problems, which are not easy ones for a lot of these communities because they have small populations, they are dispersed and investments in infrastructure are pretty complex.”

Despite being the 6th largest economy of the world, in California “it’s not easy for a commercial entity to see a return on investment that requires pooling resources. Pooling subsidies are very community-specific kinds of solutions and projects for addressing these disparities across California,” said Fox. “There’s a sort of can do attitude here that I think sets the stage for what’s possible elsewhere in the U.S.  I’ve done this kind of work in a lot of other states and other countries but there is this indomitable spirit here. And collectively we will figure this out.”

“I encourage continued work [on] this idea of just making the entire state of California one gigantic wireless mesh,” said Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer, at CENIC’s conference in March.

This article originally appeared in the RCR Wireless News, July 10, 2018, and is re-posted with permission in the UC IT Blog.

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