Committee to discuss community fiber-optic network

Committee to discuss community fiber-optic network

CHAMPAIGN – A proposal to install a community-owned fiber-optic network throughout Champaign-Urbana would cost at least $30 million – possibly as much as $35 million.

But with the federal government possibly providing up to 80 percent of that cost through its stimulus program, the cities and the University of Illinois can't afford to miss what amounts to "an amazing opportunity," said Michael Smeltzer, director of networking for the UI, who is leading a public effort locally to apply for the federal funding.

"Absolutely, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Smeltzer said. "Where else can you invest a dollar and get five back in the community? This is the best opportunity I've seen in the last 12 years, and I don't think this opportunity will come along again."

A special meeting, open to the public, will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Champaign Public Library in Robeson Pavilion Room C to discuss the broadband proposal and the plan to seek federal stimulus dollars.

The meeting is being conducted by the broadband access committee of the Champaign-Urbana Cable Television and Telecommunications Commission.

The stimulus bill, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designates $7.2 billion for broadband projects serving people unserved or underserved by the Internet. Smeltzer said he believes the federal government will seek proposals for funding in June and then again in the fall and next year.

Local officials plan to apply this summer as part of the first round of funding.

"We're in a position to do that," he said.

Grant awards by the U.S. Department of Commerce are likely by October, which means construction could begin as soon as April 2010. The broadband network will likely take two years to install, he said.

The project is being called UC2B, which stands for Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband.

Peter Resnick, a member of the cable commission, said the big broadband network could mean price competition for cable television, Internet and phone service in the community, as well as much better service than is currently available.

"Now there's competition, but only if they pull wire throughout the city," he said. "With big broadband, you have the potential for real competition because the infrastructure is owned by the city and the university."

Highlights of the proposal include.

– Eight backbone rings would be built throughout Champaign-Urbana that would connect every public and private school, city facilities, libraries, nursing homes, hospitals and medical clinics to big broadband, which can provide 100 megabits of information per second or faster.

– "Fiber to the premises" or home would be provided in 17 low- and moderate-income zones throughout the two cities. Wealthier areas would have to pay to provide fiber to the home, but the backbone rings would mean access is readily available.

– The first part of the project would be to install two northern backbone rings and also install "fiber to the home" in northern Champaign-Urbana, an area roughly defined as bordered by Interstate 74 on the north, University Avenue on the south, Mattis Avenue on the west and U.S. 45 on the east.

– The UI and the cities would own the fiber infrastructure in partnership and would set policies for its operation and use.

Smeltzer said that even though residents in low- and moderate-income households would have access to broadband service, they would still have to pay for it.

"In reality, it can't ever be free, because there are costs associated with something like this," he said. "It can be reduced cost. There's a lot of television programs available on the Internet."

To cover the local 20 percent match, Smeltzer said, local governments, the UI and some businesses would be asked to contribute. Preliminary numbers indicate that the UI would have to pay $905,000, Champaign $920,000; and Urbana $567,000. Local school and park districts, Parkland College, Champaign County and interested local businesses would also be asked to contribute.

Neither city has committed to providing the funding but are giving the proposal serious consideration, said Jeff Hamilton, a telecommunications official with the city of Champaign.

In many cases, schools and local businesses could quickly recoup the cost of their investment within a few years, Smeltzer said.

For example, the Champaign Unit 4 school district pays $400,000 annually for its fiber network, but could own its own network for an investment of $1.2 million, he said.

UC2B public forum

Advisory board: Broadband access committee of C-U Cable Television and Telecommunications Commission.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Champaign Public Library, Robeson Pavilion Room C, 200 W. Green St., C.

Agenda:

— Federal stimulus dollars for broadband projects.

— Proposal for community-wide broadband project in C-U.

— Public input.

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