Payson has struck a deal with IBM, Cisco and Panasonic to turn its planned college campus into a model for wireless, online learning on a forested campus with the Internet and digital learning built into the architecture.
The world’s largest makers of computers, wireless routers and electronics equipment on Thursday agreed to build the communications hub for the 1,000- to 6,000-student campus.
As a spin off, the system would likely provide a high-speed, wireless Internet signal that could reach all the way from Christopher Creek to Strawberry, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans on Thursday.
The plan to turn the region into a wireless Internet hot spot dovetails with a federally funded project that starting this fall will beam a 1.4 terrabit microwave signal to a network of antennas at places all over town, resulting in a dramatic increase in Internet capacity for a wide area.
The campus hub in about two years would connect to that high speed hub at a few locations to broadcast a high-speed signal throughout the region.
The consortium of electronics giants would build the campus’ $50 million hub, provide students with computing and viewing tablets, donate money to the campus and build touch-controlled screens into everything from classroom walls to kitchen countertops in dorm rooms.
Of course, that’s all assuming the Arizona House of Represen-tatives next week adopts a budget that convinces the Senate to drop its plan to cut university spending by $65 million on top of the $170 million cut in Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed 2011-12 budget.
Evans declined to say whether the handshake deal with IBM, Panasonic and Cisco would transfer to another university if ASU drops out of the negotiations as a result of the proposed Senate cuts. The Senate budget could also cost the Payson Unified School District an estimated $520,000 and the Town of Payson as much as $2 million.
Evans said “I feel good at this point in time as a result of being down there” lobbying House members to not adopt the Senate’s additional $600 million in cuts beyond the $1.1 billion proposed by Brewer.
“I told them that based on more than 50 years I’ve been in politics, very seldom do people get killed when they go off the road and get a wheel in the gravel. They get killed when they try to get back on the road and over-correct.”
Panasonic hopes to provide every student with a new computing tablet on which students can connect to the Internet, access research materials in the library in online research journals, view lectures that originate from anywhere in the world, work on group projects and pick up assignments and posted research materials for classes — whether they’re perched on a rock alongside the East Verde or sitting in their pajamas in their dorm rooms.
Evans said the electronics giants learned about the effort to build a high-tech, energy self-sufficient campus in Payson at a Las Vegas trade show and then contacted the town.
Representatives from the three companies will start working with the coordinating committee that has been meeting regularly to plan the campus, which backers hope will open its doors within two years.
He said the electronics giants hope the campus will become a prototype for the kind of seamless online communications many people predict will fundamentally reshape education in the years to come.
“The bottom line is that these are enterprises that are looking to the future,” said Evans.
“Obviously, even a campus with 6,000 students is a tiny player even in Arizona. But you could reach 60,000 students with an online class. So this is a test of digital learning.”
The proposed campus project dovetails perfectly with a $54 million federal stimulus project to build a network of microwave towers to carry a 1.4 terrabit communications signal to key outposts in four northern Arizona counties that now have limited access to the Internet.
The Payson Unified School District this week signed on to the effort with an agreement to put an antenna atop a building at the high school. Other antennas will go up at Gila Community College, the Payson Public Library, the Payson Police Station and Payson Regional Medical Center.
The existence of that federally funded high-speed hub opens the door to many possibilities in an area where many people with Internet service through a cable or phone company hookup have a 2 to 100 megabyte per second hookup — assuming they’re not saddled with even more painfully slow satellite Internet service.
The 1.4 terrabit hub would make it possible for 14,000 people to all operate at 100 megabytes per second at the same time.
Come the fall, the institutions that have antennas can almost immediately take advantage of the enormous depth and speed of the connection. That means the college and the school district can much more cheaply establish computer labs with a host of high-speed connections and the capacity for broadcasting real-time events or classes into properly equipped classrooms.
It should increase the medical center’s ability to do things like have medical specialists at distant hospitals consult with emergency room doctors or even examine patients.
It should also help the police and fire departments improve their emergency communications. Already every police car has a computer that can immediately access maps, records of past calls, and the police records of people they contact. A high-speed communications hub at the police station could increase that capacity significantly.
1.4 terrabit connection comes later this year
Evans said the various cable and wireless Internet providers can also increase their speed and capacity once the 1.4 terrabit connection arrives later this year.
The plan for the college will offer a whole new set of possibilities, he said. The current plan calls for establishing a transmitter on the Hillcrest high point overlooking the region.
From that location, the antenna can pick up the 1.4 terrabit signal and broadcast a carrier signal that would allow connections throughout the region, without having to lay expensive cables. That could make it possible for homeowners and businesses to get a strong, ultra-fast Internet signal virtually anywhere in Rim Country — even in notorious cell phone and Internet holes like East Verde Estates.
Cisco will likely set up a system that covers the region for students and faculty. However, homeowners will likely need to find some Internet provider through which they would get their signal.
Evans said the negotiations continue with the many spinoffs from the proposed campus, even though the participation of ASU still hangs by the thread of the state Senate budget.
He said the financial backers who have pledged up to $500 million in loans and grants for the campus are continuing to negotiate furiously to hang onto an ultra-low interest rate loan package, despite recent sharp rises in municipal bond rates.
The backers recently went into escrow to buy a 67-acre parcel next to the community college to build the first phase of the campus, in part to lock down that low financing rate.
Solar deal still in the works
Campus backers also continue to work on a $65 million deal to put an array of solar cells on a covered event center and an expanded parking lot, which would not only make the campus energy self-sufficient, but generate enough electricity to supply 20 percent of the need in northern Gila County. Construction must start on that project by August to take advantage of an array of tax breaks and grants that will dramatically reduce the cost to investors.
Evans noted that he hopes the state will quickly resolve the budget debate in favor of the governor’s version, which would mean that ASU could commit to building a campus quickly.
If not, the town will likely have to reopen negotiations with private universities who initially expressed interest in building a campus here.