Construction underway for C-U’s Big Broadband project

A federal grant gave Champaign-Urbana the necessary funds to provide high-speed Internet access to more residents over a year ago. Two weeks ago, people from around the community came together to witness the ground breaking of this project.

After a long wait, construction is now underway for the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband project, which will expand broadband access in and around Champaign-Urbana. The $29 million, multi-year project, also known as UC2B, will continue through late next year or early “2013”:

The bulk of the $29 million came from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The goal of the Department of Commerce is to develop the nation’s broadband infrastructure and to install necessary fiber optic cables in neighborhoods where high-speed access was impossible.

The underserved areas of Champaign-Urbana in terms of high-speed Internet access are now going to be “plugged in”:

That should be a relief for many residents, said Urbana resident Craig Burr. He said his brother, who lives in Champaign, has tried installing broadband service at his home for awhile, but the fiber optic network required for it did not reach his neighborhood.

“I was surprised, what with this being a university town, that they’re not up to date (with broadband infrastructure),” Burr said.

Digging began on North Wright Street on the Champaign-Urbana border as soon as last week’s ground-breaking ceremony finished, said Brandon Bowersox, an Urbana city council member and member of the “UC2B policy committee”: Contractors dug 1 1/2 inches underground and began installing the pipes that will house the fiber optic cables required for the broadband access.

“They’re ramping up each week,” Bowersox said. “Last week we started with one crew. This week, they will be up to two crews, and we expect to add more each week.”

What happens now, he added, is only the beginning. Many residents and businesses affected by the underground construction will receive notice, but he said construction shouldn’t be too intrusive.

The ultimate goal: about 300 miles of fiber optic cables beneath the Champaign-Urbana area.

Seven fiber rings will make up the main network of the project; these seven rings will run through Champaign, Urbana and Savoy. A total of 198 institutions will have entry into the network. Such institutions include the Champaign and Urbana schools, libraries, fire departments and local churches.

This diversity of anchor institutions has caught the attention of the government, said Deborah Feinen, UC2B policy committee chairwoman and Champaign council member at-large. While many other broadband projects nationally tend to use solely government buildings as anchors for broadband access, the project here is using different types of places as hubs to reach out to more of the community.

“They were very impressed with our anchor institution selections,” Feinen said. “We’ve really taken a broad view of our community.”

In addition to the rings, close to 5,000 households will have access to the network at affordable prices: Rates will start at $19.99 per month.

However, Bowersox said that doesn’t include about 85 percent of the Champaign-Urbana households, including most apartments and homes typically occupied by University students.

Feinen said the grant specified underdeveloped areas were top priority, so students on or close to campus may have to wait.

“I’m disappointed that the whole community in general wasn’t allowed access directly from their homes,” Feinen said.

The expansion of the UC2B network will definitely be a big conversation for the community in the future, Bowersox said. He added that just because someone doesn’t live in the eligible areas doesn’t mean they cannot reap the benefits.

However, it will be up to community members as to where broadband infrastructure in Champaign-Urbana goes next.

“We are hoping that after the grant is completed, the citizens and the residents find a way to expand the service,” Bowersox said.