Hampton Roads to hop on high speed data network

This summer, Hampton Roads will become a stop on National LambdaRail, a nationwide fiber-optic network that allows users to transmit large amounts of data 100 times faster than is currently possible on a desktop computer.

Gov. Mark R. Warner announced the agreement Monday afternoon at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which will be one of the first to connect to the rail. The state has signed a deal with Verizon Communications Inc. to make the connection.

While the high-speed network initially will be used by research institutions, state officials hope private companies will link up, too. That would bring companies and technical jobs that typically pay well to the commonwealth, they said.

Once on the network, a researcher in California would be able to access Virginia Tech's System X supercomputer in Blacksburg. A company in Texas could download a battlefield simulation from Virginia Modeling, Analysis & Simulation Center in Suffolk. Students at The College of William and Mary could work on a large physics project with scientists at Jefferson Lab in Newport News.

LambdaRail has been wending its way around the country since Nov. 18, 2003, when the first connection was made between a research institution in Chicago and two Pittsburgh schools, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University. The rail, which goes through such cities as Boston, Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, is estimated to cost $80 million during the first five years.

Several cities are considered "nodes" on the rail and serve as a connection point for research institutions and other users in the area.

Virginia users will access the rail through a node in McLean. Each node requires a $5 million fee and a 20-year lease for the fiber.

The rail is actually fiber-optic cable that is already in the ground. It gets "lit" when universities and research institutions sign deals with both the owners of the fiber and telecommunications companies that provide the service. Users pay a fee, which varies depending on how many hook up at each node. They also might have to invest in hardware that allows them to tap the network.

In Virginia, the cost will be paid by participating parties, with state and private investment. The state has committed $2.4 million.

Research institutions including Old Dominion University, William and Mary, Jefferson Lab and Langley Research Center each will pay an annual fee of $100,000 over five years for a total of $6 million. The cost will go down if more users sign up.

The rail is expected to make its way to Hampton Roads in July. It will pass through Blacksburg, Roanoke, Richmond and Norfolk.

Because it's underground, it won't be apparent to passers-by, said Rusty Waterfield, acting assistant vice president of computing and communications services at Old Dominion, which will serve as the hub for the Hampton Roads connection. But once it's lit, he said, others will want to climb aboard.

"It's going to be more work for us," Waterfield said, "but I'm smiling as I say this."

— Reach Allison Connolly at 446-2318 or allison.connolly@pilotonline.com.