Champaign's 'Big Broadband' discussion delayed

Champaign's 'Big Broadband' discussion delayed

CHAMPAIGN – City officials Tuesday night deferred a discussion of the $31 million "Big Broadband" proposal until a Maryland consultant who critiqued the system would be able to speak in person with the city council.

A report that Doug Dawson, the broadband consultant, released to local agencies last week – a generally positive critique of the proposal – exposed some weaknesses with the high-speed telecommunications network, for which local officials are still awaiting federal grant approval.

The council was expected to discuss the proposal under the impression that Dawson would be present to aid dialogue. City officials had hoped to pick Dawson's mind, as the Urbana City Council did on Monday, as questions grow surrounding the financial sustainability of the proposal.

"There's not as much of a hurry as we thought there might have been even a week ago," said City Manager Steve Carter, as local agencies still await the decision of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency responsible for the release of the $31 million in grants for the project.

That did not stop two local figures, who attended Tuesday night's city council meeting as members of the public, from commenting on the proposal, which would provide high-speed Internet to more than 137 "anchor institutions" – like government and community buildings – and a percentage of low-income neighborhoods.

"We need to begin to view broadband as part of the infrastructure," said John Dimit, the director of the Champaign County Economic Development Corporation.

Dimit said the companies his agency tries to draw to Champaign County are becoming more concerned with Internet access in prospective locations – sometimes more so than the nature of streets or mass transportation access. Many companies are entirely dependent on Internet service.

"When the Internet goes down, if they have single service, they're basically out of business until they can get it back up," Dimit said.

He added that Champaign was once "on the forefront of Internet in this community."

"Now we are very much behind other communities, and it's brought to my attention all the time," Dimit said.

Brandon Bowersox, an Urbana City Council member, said that upon discussion with Dawson, it was determined that the worst-case scenario would be that the system starts losing money – in which case local governments would not be obligated to provide service to private properties past the first two or three years of the system's existence.

"Even that worst-case scenario, that's not too bad," Bowersox said.

Also during Tuesday night's meeting, Deputy City Attorney Trisha Crowley briefed the council on the city's efforts to come fully into compliance with the state's updated Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act, which became effective at the beginning of this year.

The city still must appoint Freedom of Information Officers and designate trainees for Open Meetings Act policies.

Several council members expressed concern over what they believe to be a gap in the law: The city is not required to inform individuals when arguably private information may be released.

Council member Marci Dodds requested that the city's legal department explore creating a local policy to notify individuals in such situations.