Champaign City Council accepts Big Broadband grant

Champaign City Council passed a $22.5 million federal grant to fund the Big Broadband Project with a vote of 7-1 at its meeting Tuesday night. Mayor Jerry Schweighart was in the dissent.

The Big Broadband Project would provide extended Internet service to private homes and businesses by placing fiber rings at 11 districts. The service would be an endeavor by the city of Champaign because it would compete with businesses in the private sector.

“I have trouble accepting this grant money when I know that, going into this, our federal government is bankrupt, the state may take $1.7 million from out of our budget; $1 million from Urbana’s,” Schweighart said. “We may end up being in the position to lay off individuals from their jobs, and the University is in the process of firing 300 to 400 from their positions in the next year. I just can’t convince myself to accept this.”

Though the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University are struggling financially, installing fiber optic cables would be more financially sound in the long run, said Tom Bruno, council member-at large. He added that the idea of creating a municipality service out of Internet coverage is not as radical an idea as it may seem.

“We are an unusual community in that we have a private sector water company and trash collector, whereas most cities have a municipal trash collector and water company,” Bruno said. “This is how most cities do it. Big Broadband may be on the cutting edge, but its not very different from supplying electricity, water and trash collecting services.”

Others said they felt the benefits of the Big Broadband Project outweigh the financial risks presented. Steve Sonka, University Interim Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement, said the it allows the city to develop maximally and aid its educational enterprise.

“The importance of digital infrastructure for the University to be successful is stressed,” Sonka said. “(The University) must continue to attract bright undergraduates and graduates and attract and retain our outstanding faculty. Advanced digital capability is necessary as higher education continues to adapt to the changing 21st century.”

Will Kyles, District 1 council member, said the community needs to remember the considerable effect expanding Broadband coverage would have on the job market for minorities.

“We need to meet the need of the city. I know Round 2 of the grant application is up in the air, but it is important to make sure the poor areas (of our community) are still fit for continuing with this project,” Kyles said. “This offers jobs for minority men and women. This is what first attracted me to the idea when the project was first discussed.”

The next step for the project will be completing Round 2 federal grant applications regarding below and above ground digital infrastructure.