Group considers pursuing Internet funding

CHAMPAIGN – A potential local consortium led by the University of Illinois might pursue economic stimulus grant funding to construct a "big broadband" network along the Bradley Avenue corridor in Champaign and Urbana.

The goal: to bring advanced broadband service to underserved residents.

The economic stimulus bill signed by President Obama on Tuesday includes $7 billion in funding to improve bandwidth and the availability of broadband service to areas that are unserved or underserved by current providers and technology.

The local effort is being led by Michael Smeltzer, director of networking with the UI's Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services. Smeltzer and representatives of several local governments, including Champaign and Urbana city government and local school districts, met Tuesday afternoon about the issue at the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

Smeltzer said the potential project doesn't have full UI endorsement yet, but that a concept proposal is now on the desk of UI Provost Linda Katehi.

"Yesterday's meeting was kind of a kickoff meeting to get local people, from the schools, the cities, city council members and UI administrators, fired up about the idea," Smeltzer said. "The legislation talks a lot about underserved areas and vulnerable populations and I think the Bradley Avenue corridor would fit that definition."

A big broadband network along Bradley Avenue would not only help local residents, it would also likely spur high-tech business investment in the area, and could serve existing businesses like Human Kinetics, the city of Champaign Public Works building, two city fire stations and possibly even Parkland College, Smeltzer said.

What is proposed is called big broadband, which will deliver many times more bandwidth than what is available today from cable and telephone lines. The infrastructure would be publicly owned and operated in the public interest, and telecommunications companies could provide their services on the common infrastructure and compete on the basis of price and service.

"If we're going to spend (federal) money, why not spend it in Champaign?" Smeltzer asked.

Fred Halenar, the city of Champaign's information technologies director, said that at this point it appears a grant of at least $5 million to $7 million would be sought to install big broadband. Smeltzer estimated the cost could be between $5 million and $10 million.

A local match of 20 percent would be needed, he said.

"It's not going to be free" Internet service, Halenar said. "Infrastructure put in there would have to be maintained, and there would be some cost to it. Costs would certainly be considerably more reasonable."

Rules about applying for grant funds are expected to be handed down by the Federal Communications Commission within about 45 days, Halenar said. The cities of Champaign and Urbana are very interested in pursuing the project, and local school districts and libraries are also showing interest, he said.

Champaign City Council member Tom Bruno attended the meeting and said he is enthusiastic about the concept.

"This is infrastructure for the community that's as important to our future as roads and bridges may have been 30 or 40 years ago," he said. "It's completely appropriate governmental infrastructure."

Besides the Bradley Avenue corridor, the UI is interested in bringing big broadband to an area rural community that has not yet been identified.

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