Champaign council to vote on 'Big Broadband' grant

Champaign council to vote on 'Big Broadband' grant

CHAMPAIGN – City council members will decide on Tuesday night if they would be willing to accept grant money for the multigovernment, multimillion-dollar "Big Broadband" project awaiting federal approval.

The discussion, which follows an independent consultant's assertion that there are still problems with the proposed high-speed telecommunications system, will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Champaign City Building, 102 N. Neil St.

Officials anticipate the city would need to contribute $918,070 to help reach the 20 percent local match of the $31 million in federal funds for which it applied, according to city documents.

"If we put this in, with the grant money plus our own funds from the match, then is this sustainable or is this a financial draw on the cities?" That question has yet to answered, said Information Technologies Director Fred Halenar.

Of the 900 systems in the world that utilize the type of technology proposed for Champaign-Urbana, only one is active in the United States – a 3,500-population New York community.

"If you look at the U.S. position in big broadband, you know their ranking in the past couple years has been slipping," Halenar said.

But in a report released last week, a consultant said the project is too much, too soon. That consultant will appear tonight for a 5:30 p.m. meeting of the Urbana City Council.

Halenar said those involved stand by the cutting-edge design and that the technology is ahead of where the industry is going.

Not everyone in Champaign-Urbana will be directly connected to the system. The network will serve governmental and community buildings and a percentage of low-income homes with the possibility that the system could be expanded in the future.

Council member Tom Bruno said that, in a way, the city's $900,000 contribution would affect all of its residents.

"No it's not (going to affect everyone), but it's going to serve a lot of the community," Bruno said. "And it's going to create opportunities that will serve everybody."

Halenar said "people will invent ways to use it," even if they are not directly connected.

"The communities that are going to be the big winners in the next decade or two are the ones that are on the cutting edge of modern infrastructure," Bruno said.

Council members on Tuesday also will evaluate the city's lobbying efforts at the state and federal levels.

Government officials throughout Champaign County recently planned a March trip to Washington, where they are scheduled to meet with congressional leaders to lobby for high-speed rail and the completion of Olympian Drive, Bruno said.

The first trip to meet with federal officials took place in September, and Bruno said the travelers – whom he plans to join for a second time – hope to continue the expeditions regularly.

Bruno said organizers identified several topics "that have universal appeal to people to Champaign County" to bring to Washington officials: high-speed rail and the completion of Olympian Drive, both of which were also addressed during last year's trip.

"I think it's unrealistic that they are going to answer back to us right then and there, that we walk away with something tangible and we can point to it and say look what they agreed to give us," Bruno said.

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