Updated: Vote now unlikely on Big Broadband; consultant is ill

Updated: Vote now unlikely on Big Broadband; consultant is ill

Updated 5:15 p.m. CHAMPAIGN – As council members continue to weigh the benefits of the proposed Big Broadband network and the doubts about its feasibility, a Maryland consultant who audited the proposal was to return to Champaign this week to field questions from the city council. But on Monday, the consultant told city officials he won't be here because he's ill.

Mayor Jerry Schweighart said he believes there's a possibility the project – and Champaign's nearly $1 million contribution – could be killed by the council on Tuesday night.

The vote was expected after a discussion with Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the City Building, 102 N. Neil St.

The study session and a vote on whether the city would be willing to accept a $31 million federal grant was rescheduled at the end of last month when a conflict pulled Dawson away from Champaign. He previously had spoken to the Urbana city council.

"I'm told they (Champaign council members) have a lot of questions," Dawson said Friday.

Dawson was to go over the report he submitted to city officials in January, and discuss the feasibility of accepting the grant money.

"The grants are such a good deal," Dawson said earlier to The News-Gazette. "I can't think of any reason why the city should turn this down."

Even if the network never grows, the city can "get out of that business," Dawson said. In that case, the city would be left with a fiber network that still connects city buildings.

"The worst-case scenario isn't really that bad," and the economic benefits of having such a network are promising, Dawson said.

Mike Smeltzer, director of networking for the University of Illinois' Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services, has previously said if the Champaign council votes to decommit itself, the project's other players – the city of Urbana and the University of Illinois – would have to reconfigure their involvement and likely raise their monetary contributions.

But Schweighart said such a vote would probably kill the project in its entirety.

"I think Champaign, Urbana, the University of Illinois – everyone has to be on board," Schweighart said.

"I have questions about it," council member Marci Dodds said Friday. "Certainly it's interesting, it's intriguing. But I have questions about it."

Dodds said she still wonders whether the project is fiscally sustainable, and Dawson has said the system could face a $200,000 to $300,000 annual cash shortfall during its first 10 years.

"It bothers me a lot that I've heard some people say, 'Well, look, if it doesn't work, then we'll just go out of business,'" Dodds said.

She added that doing so would defeat the purpose of the grant – to provide high-speed Internet access to "underserved" communities – and the ethics of doing so are questionable.

While Dodds indicated she has yet to make up her mind, Schweighart, who listened to Dawson when he traveled to Urbana to speak to that city council, said his vote likely will be against the project.

"I've already heard the expert speak, and he left a lot of doubt in my mind," Scweighart said.

Dodds said the project is important to keep Champaign an "innovative, progressive community."

But "I think we need to do it smart," Dodds said. "And we need to get as much bang for our buck as possible."

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