Laura Blair, the technology chief for the city of Red Wing, Minn., long dreamed of building a superfast fiber-optic Internet network in her town. She wanted, among other things, to create an "air traffic controller-like" monitoring system for the city's water-treatment plants and public buildings. Though the city had a system in place, the Internet service it had been buying from cable operator Charter Communications Inc. and local phone companies was so slow that it had to send trucks to check up on its facilities in bad weather.
Charter said it offered to build fiber to most of the government locations a couple of years ago—but not to all the sites or in the manner Red Wing wanted, according to Ms. Blair. Around the same time, Hiawatha Broadband Communications Inc., a small privately held local company that Ms. Blair had also approached, said it would bring fiber lines not just to every city building, but to all the town's homes and businesses. Construction began last spring.
Red Wing is one of many city governments, schools, hospitals and local businesses that are pushing for ultrafast broadband networks. Partnerships such as U.S. Ignite, a group backed by the National Science Foundation, are leading the way to connect communities with researchers and designers creating high-bandwidth software in fields like education, public safety and health care.
While cable executives say there aren't enough applications requiring gigabit-a-second speeds, many of these groups disagree. They argue, for example, that high speeds could support more-sophisticated severe-weather alert systems and allow high-quality, virtual doctor-patient consultations on a large scale.
In northeast Ohio, where a gigabit fiber network built by Case Western Reserve University and a local nonprofit serves hundreds of homes and businesses, Warren Selman, the university's chief neurosurgeon, recently founded a company called Surgical Theater LLC that has developed software to let doctors practice on 3-D images of their patients' brains while being supervised remotely by other surgeons. Several hospitals have contacted Surgical Theater to buy the program, but it requires a near-gigabit Internet speed to work.
In Chattanooga, Tenn., where the public utility runs a fiber network, the University of Tennessee, nonprofit SimCenter Enterprises and the city government are creating a next-generation public safety system that will send information from sensors beneath highways and atop utility poles to a supercomputer that can produce real-time, 3-D renderings of major traffic accidents, chemical spills or other disasters. The supercomputer will deliver the information over the utility's fiber network at about 640 megabits per second to public-safety officials and first responders.
Many schools across the country are experimenting with "bring your own device" and online learning programs that are vastly increasing their bandwidth needs. Audrey Menard, principal of St. Thomas More Catholic High School in Lafayette, La., says that when she found out this fall that LUS Fiber, the city's fiber operator, would soon offer gigabit-speed Internet service, she "almost tackled" the company's leader "in the middle of a Chamber of Commerce meeting" to ask to be his first gigabit customer.
Write to Shalini Ramachandran at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared January 2, 2013, on page B4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Cities, Schools Seek Faster Broadband.