UC2B canvasses to bring Internet to Champaign-Urbana

Micah Sommersmith knocked six times on the flaky green door and then, as always, waited 30 seconds. It’s a familiar wait for any salesman, that anticipatory half-minute that precedes either an opening door or just more silence.

The house is one of thousands that have yet to subscribe to the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband project, or UC2B, which aims to bring high-speed, fiber-optic Internet to local areas that have been chronically underserved by existing Internet infrastructure.

Sommersmith is part of a team of “community ambassadors,” headed by team leader Abraham McClurg, who have been working house-by-house through the 11 qualifying areas of Champaign, Urbana and Savoy since November 2011, and there’s nothing unusual about his knocks going unanswered.

It’s happened too many times before.

Since May, canvassers like Sommersmith have managed to officially subscribe over 1,000 households and organizations, but the federal grant money available to UC2B could provide for more than double that number — 2,500 homes. And if McClurg and his team of blue-shirted canvassers can’t fill that amount by the end of January, then that federal money will go unused.

“It’s too dark,” Sommersmith said as he peered through a window near the green door. Spying furniture and other household items within, he said, “I can’t tell if it’s ‘I live here’ stuff or just ‘I left my stuff here’ stuff.”

With only a few months before the deadline, McClurg and his team have run out of fresh ground to cover, and they’re now visiting homes in areas they’ve already covered half-a-dozen times.

During an hour-and-a-half period Thursday afternoon, the team knocked on eight doors, including two businesses. Two visits proved fruitful. That’s a much better ratio than they usually get, and Sommersmith said a particularly dry streak could see them knocking on upward of 40 doors in an hour.

McClurg is the first to admit that there is something awkward about the process of door-to-door canvassing, but it’s necessary for spreading the benefits of UC2B, and he doesn’t view what they do as salesmanship.

“If it’s a good product, it sells itself,” he said.

Urbana resident Brent Burton is one of those taking advantage of that product. His family has been without Internet since March, after their modem broke down and they declined to pay for its repair.

“Our service is down, and I’ve got a 10-year-old girl here who likes to get on the Internet,” he said, describing himself as “computer illiterate.”

McClurg said cases like Burton’s are very common.

“There are a lot of people who don’t use the Internet themselves but recognize its value, especially when they have kids in school,” he said.

Yet McClurg said even if someone actually answers the door, the prospect of a blazing-fast Internet at a low cost can raise suspicion instead of enthusiasm.

“Some have the presumption that this is a project to help poor people,” he said.

He added that others think UC2B is only directed at minorities, and a particularly vocal contingent of homeowners are unhappy with public tax dollars being used to benefit only some, referring to UC2B as “welfare Internet.”

But McClurg said these people miss the inclusive purpose of the UC2B.

“The entire point of the project is that it’s for everybody,” McClurg said.

He proposes that once more houses are using UC2B, word of mouth could do what hours of legwork and canvassing have not.

“Once the installed base is larger, there will be more talk about it in the community and (people will) realize that it actually exists and it’s built and it’s real,” he said. “I think people will then take it more seriously and have something they can actually relate to.”

Danny can be reached at [email protected]