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Electricity is history. Today we face the next-generation infrastructure: gigabit networks.

SALT LAKE CITY — It's easy to plug a refrigerator, television, alarm clock or toothbrush into a wall socket. We forget the lesson that electricity became widely available only after a single application — the light bulb — caught the imagination and desire of the public.

Electricity is history. Today we face the next-generation infrastructure: gigabit networks. Global visionaries here in Utah see the need for these communication networks, even as they struggle to explain the "light bulb" that will make it plain why a super-fast Internet network is as necessary as running water and a universal electric grid.

One of these visionaries is Glenn Ricart, an unassuming man who moved his family here from the East Coast 20 years ago. The late Ray Noorda recruited him as chief technology officer at Novell. A renowned technologist, Ricart set up the first Internet exchange point at the University of Maryland in 1986. Two years ago, he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.

Ricart's recent energies have been devoted to co-founding an ambitious venture known as US Ignite. Its goal is next-generation applications with "transformative public benefit."

What are those? Of the 476 technologies submitted to US Ignite, none have yet emerged as the light bulb that will answer skeptics who believe a few megabits of connectivity should be enough to satisfy anyone’s need for Internet movies, music and email.

They include real-time emergency response systems, air pollution monitoring, collaborative virtual reality surgery and analyses of traffic congestion. US Ignite is particularly keen on applications that advance education and workforce, energy, health care, public safety, transportation and advanced manufacturing.

In other words, said Ricart, “we exist to help cities become smarter, and help their citizens take advantage of gigabit networks.”

Launched with a jump-start by the White House and the National Science Foundation in 2012, US Ignite is now a full-fledged national nonprofit organization. It leaves the design, construction and operation of next-generation fiber-optic networks to others. Its mission is finding that innovative application (think light bulbs) that everyone is going to need … as soon as it is invented.

Here in Utah, we have the privilege of a front-row seat on a new project Ricart touts as the next phase of US Ignite.

It’s called Utah Ignite, and it’s one of 12 urban hubs where gigabit connectivity is plentiful. Ours is centered around Salt Lake City and Utah Valley.

The other gigabit hubs include Kansas City, the place that Google Fiber selected to launch its mantra "think big with a Gig;" plus Austin, Texas; Lafayette, Louisiana; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Cleveland, Ohio. There, the nonprofit group OneCommunity transformed Cleveland and Northeast Ohio through collaborations between hospitals and universities to deploy extensive fiber-optic capacity.

Speaking at a recent launch event of Utah Ignite at Utah Valley University (the University of Utah is also playing a founding role), Ricart noted that Utah was the westernmost gigabit hub. Even though Seattle, Portland and San Francisco were interested in joining, "they don't have the same kind of penetration [of gigabit fiber] that exists in Utah," he said.

Indeed, of roughly 200 cities and communities with gigabit networks, about 5 percent are along the Wasatch Front. That’s one reason why Utah's broadband is among the best in the nation.

Utah Ignite and the other gigabit hubs will provide a proving ground needed to search for breakthrough developments. And as with Thomas Edison’s bulbs, the quest isn't merely about innovation — it’s about understanding a dynamic marketplace that includes needs of the civic, educational/nonprofit and consumer sectors.

For example, one powerful gigabit application turns plain old electric systems into a “smart grid” that enhances energy conservation and saves money for consumers and businesses. Indeed, Chattanooga leveraged its “smart grid” into a full-fledged fiber-optic network for businesses and individuals.

Additionally, says Ricart, "the Utah tech economy is boosted from startups and new companies we attract to create and deploy these applications. Utah will become a net exporter of smart gigabit city technologies to other states and nations."

One impressive example of the power of gigabit fiber technology comes from Reid Robison, a BYU graduate who is CEO of Tute Genomics based in Provo. "It used to take me days to download a genome from the lab, before I could even start to analyze it," he wrote.

But now, "I can download a whole human genome in less than half an hour. That is a huge difference when someone’s health is on the line. … In order to realize the promise of rapid genome sequencing in the [intensive care unit], we need gigabit Internet connections on both ends."

Utah Ignite could play a pivotal role in finding other such “light bulbs.” That’s why it’s vital for our tech sector, our universities and our cities to sit up and take notice.

Drew Clark can be reached via email: drew@drewclark.com, or on Twitter @drewclark, or at www.utahbreakfast.com.