Urbana council members to discuss broadband options

Urbana council members to discuss broadband options

URBANA – Mayor Laurel Prussing is interested in the possibility of a city-operated broadband Internet service in Urbana.

Council members will discuss the issue, but take no action, at their meeting set for 7 p.m. Monday at the council chambers, 400 S. Vine St., U.

Prussing said in a phone interview that she wants Urbana to explore its options in light of a pending federal application that would, if granted, establish a network structure – a "backbone" – for high-speed Internet.

If the federal grant is approved, a consortium of Urbana, Champaign and the University of Illinois would create and operate a local "big broadband" high-speed Internet service.

The mayor said Urbana needs to look at its role in the joint project and also study whether there are other possibilities, including a municipal service which would be a future source of revenue to the city and provide services to the citizens.

"We want to do due diligence," Prussing said. "We are talking about the future."

Mike Monson, chief of staff for the mayor, said in a report to council members that preliminary research shows about 45 other cities have built such networks. Urbana could build upon a broadband network that may be built if a federal stimulus grant is approved for the consortium.

A state grant of $3.5 million was approved to be used toward necessary local matching funds for three federal grants totaling $36.2 million. Those grant applications are pending.

According to Mike Smeltzer, UI director of networking communications, the primary focus of the largest grant request, which covers about 60 percent, is for local infrastructure to build seven fiber "rings" throughout the community.

Monson's report said $31.2 million would be for the infrastructure, with $1.3 million to establish 46 public computing centers and another $3.7 million for training, education and support. Urbana would contribute $555,000 to the project, while Champaign and the university would each cover $900,000, his report said.

A fiber-to-home federal grant program would subsidize Internet connections for underserved areas, which a local survey found to be mostly north in Champaign and Urbana, according to Smeltzer. That would involve 4,600 residences in the two cities, but it's estimated only 2,500 would sign up for the hookup, according to Monson's report.

The grant application assumes the fiber-to-home penetration can be expanded gradually after the network is built by borrowing $2 million to $2.5 million over three years, according to the report.

If a municipal service is operated well, it can generate revenue, Monson said.

His report said experts warn, however, that if Champaign and Urbana go ahead with municipal broadband, there will be opposition from Comcast or AT&T.

Also Monday, the council will consider an amended agreement with Champaign County regarding placement of a newspaper rack at the courthouse; changing the city zoning ordinances regarding access widths for drives serving individual townhouses and regarding electric sign illumination.

The council settled on a conventional single, multislot newspaper rack instead of a more expensive art project that had been proposed earlier. An agreement with the county to allow placement of a newsrack is being amended to reflect the change of the project. The pact allows the city to have a newsrack at the courthouse for 15 years but exempts the county and makes the city responsible for maintenance or any legal issues.

The change in driveway widths for townhouses allows driveways up to 18 feet or 45 percent of property width, according to a city staff memo to council members. This would bring the majority of existing townhouses into compliance with regulations and allow future development to have reasonable restrictions,

Regarding the sign illumination issue, the council in June amended its sign regulations. At that time, council members asked about illuminated signs.

After researching the issue, the staff is now recommending that electronic signs be required to have a photoelectric cell or other dimming technology based on ambient light. The staff also recommends a maximum brightness to limit glare and driver distraction.