C-U hopes for Big Broadband grant still alive despite 1st award elsewhere

C-U hopes for Big Broadband grant still alive despite 1st award elsewhere

CHAMPAIGN – Officials are still "cautiously optimistic" about the fate of their $31 million Big Broadband proposal after a federal agency announced its first Illinois award on Friday.

Gov. Pat Quinn was in Sycamore on Friday afternoon to announce that the federal government would release nearly $12 million to develop a high-speed Internet network there. Meanwhile, Champaign-Urbana officials were still wondering whether the governor would have an opportunity to make a similar trip to Champaign.

"It means that we're still going to continue working on a Round Two application for infrastructure," said Mike Smeltzer, director of networking for Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services at the University of Illinois.

The proposal would link 137 community-oriented buildings and a percentage of low-income, "underserved" homes to a high-speed network.

But when that decision will come is still a mystery.

"You'll have to ask the federal government," said Champaign information techonologies director Fred Halenar.

State and federal deadlines have come and gone, and a local broadband committee already is working on an application for the second and last round of awards before it knows the fate of its first-round application.

Friday's announcement in Sycamore followed a windfall of awards on Thursday, when Indiana and Wisconsin preceded Illinois as the Midwestern winners. Other federal grants went to projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, among others.

Smeltzer said he "would assume they're going to be hooking up all the small communities in DeKalb County," whereas the local proposal focuses on connecting only Champaign-Urbana neighborhoods with a possibility for expansion in the future.

"That's good for (DeKalb County), but it doesn't necessarily decrease our chances," Smeltzer said.

The U.S. Department of Commerce on Thursday alone committed $357 million of the available $7.2 billion to fund 10 high-speed Internet projects in eight states, according to a press release.

In Illinois, there are still dozens of pending applications and plenty of uncommitted money, Smeltzer said. He added that he expects five or six Illinois proposals will receive federal funds.

"I'm still hopeful and optimistic that this will turn out the way we want it to," Smeltzer said.

Questions still loom about the practicality of the local broadband proposal, which would require local contributions of nearly $1 million from both Champaign and the UI. Urbana would be on the hook for about $555,000.

Whether or not the agencies – facing tight budgets themselves – can stomach the upfront contributions and the yearly maintenance costs has some Champaign City Council members worried.

The council likely will take a preliminary vote in March on whether they would be willing to accept the federal grant if it were awarded to Champaign-Urbana. They hope to pose their questions to Doug Dawson, a Maryland expert who audited the local broadband proposal, when he is present at a council meeting.

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