Champaign City Council plans visit with Broadband Project consultant

Officials and community members remain skeptical of the details of the proposed Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband project, which may bring fiber-optic Internet connections to certain homes and community institutions if it receives a federal stimulus grant.

Michael LaDue, council member–at large, said some council members and other residents are concerned the project may be useless because of the high level of Internet use found on campus and some other areas.

“Many doubt what the so called benefits of optic fibers in the community would be,” LaDue said. “I’ve talked to many professionals skilled in technology who have wondered what additional service the broadband project would provide other than what the Internet services available to this community, like Comcast, already provide.”

But others say the Big Broadband Project will help lessen the digital divide because it plans to maximize Internet coverage of regions within Champaign, Urbana and Savoy that currently have fewer than 40 percent of residents subscribing to Internet service. Homes in 11 areas, known as census blocks, are being targeted to receive fiber-optic cable directly, whereas homes in other areas will receive more indirect service through fiber cables to their neighborhood or street.

“We’re really working towards getting every home connected to the Internet in some way,” said Jeff Hamilton, information technologies department technician for the City of Champaign.

Hamilton added that the benefits of the project could include improved city relations and technology use.

“This has a correlation to our efforts to improve public communications,” Hamilton said. “The issue is getting Internet service into homes that do not have access to it; the Big Broadband project does that, which in turn, can connect more citizens to what’s happening in Champaign.”

Fred Halenar, Champaign’s information technologies department director, said the plan will provide broadband service to residents in lower income areas and to public service outlets, such as public libraries and medical facilities. Champaign City Council and other local bodies are waiting for approval of a federal grant application before taking the next step.

“Moving forward with this is contingent upon receiving a grant from the government,” Halenar said. “Without it, there is no next step.”

The uncertainty about the grant application makes estimating the time frame for the project difficult because the grant may be approved or denied at any point, he added.

LaDue said the high cost of the project could prove to be disastrous to the city’s budget. The project is estimated to cost $36.2 million, according to the grant application filed by the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband consortium, which is the group formed to organize the program.

About $30 million may be covered by a stimulus grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, while the state of Illinois is committed to pay $3.5 million. The remaining $3.74 million will be paid for by local city governments and the University.

Halenar said although the expenses of the project run high, the costs are a reasonable amount in the long run.

“We hope to alleviate some of these costs through expansion of the (fiber) rings for local businesses to take advantage of,” Halenar said.

Council members will discuss the status of the grant application and details in regards to carrying out the Big Broadband project during Tuesday’s regularly scheduled city council meeting. A consultant will be present to outline the advantages and the disadvantages in continuing with the project.