Amherst Magazine

Power of Light

By Katherine Duke ’05

Imagine this: A student at Smith enrolls in a course at Amherst. Her professor assigns a film available through Amherst’s streaming video-on-demand service. To watch it, the student must suffer a bus ride and a walk (uphill, both ways, in the snow, as she’s sure to tell her children) to a computer at Amherst. But what if the Smithie could watch in her slippers, on her own computer, long after the bus has made its last run of the night? For this and other tech advances to come, the Five College community can thank 53 miles of cable and the power of light. 

A celebration in May marked the inauguration of the Five College Fiber Optic Network, a ring made up of strands of glass—each strand slightly wider than a human hair—that are bundled together in cables and placed underground and on existing utility poles. The ring links together the Five Colleges, and also has a leg that runs from Mount Holyoke to Springfield, Mass., which is the area’s communications hub. The network frees the colleges from paying high fees to commercial companies for Internet connections. It cost $3.6 million for the Five College Consortium to build the network, and the system is expected to pay for itself within seven years.

Fiber optic cables transmit information using light rather than electricity. With the network, Amherst has been able to reduce by half the cost of its Internet service, while at the same time more than doubling its Internet bandwidth. The extra bandwidth has made it possible for Amherst to get on Internet 2, a research network of universities and private businesses that features, among other things, virtual laboratories. Without the fiber optic network, the additional bandwidth required for Internet 2 might have cost the college more than $100,000 a year instead of $30,000, says John Manly ’85, director of systems and networking.

The fiber optic network brings with it great potential, and not only when it comes to research and coursework. There’s good news, for example, for gamers: thanks to the increase in bandwidth, Amherst might create, for learning purposes, its own MMOGs (massively-multiuser online games) and simulations. There has also been talk of collectively buying cable TV channel feeds and then delivering them to the individual schools via the fiber, also as a way to save money. 

As Scott Payne, director of academic technology services, sees it, too many exciting theories and plans have had to remain impossibilities in the real world, inhibited by the limits of the available technology. “When you remove these constraints,” he believes, “good things begin to happen.”