OK of Big Broadband grant means real work can begin

Now the work begins.

Officials from Urbana, Champaign and the University of Illinois are expected to meet this week to work on plans for the Big Broadband fiber-optic network that will bring high-speed Internet to the twin cities and campus.

Approval of the $22.5 million federal grant by the cities and the UI means the system can be designed and built, but there's a lot of work yet to do, officials say.

"We're at least a year or year-plus from lighting fibers," said Fred Halenar, information technologies director for Champaign.

Construction is expected to begin in 2011. Between now and then, the planning and engineering must be done, said Mike Smeltzer, director of networking for the UI's Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services and a key organizer of the local project.

Smeltzer said the policy board will have a "host of issues to address," but the first will be approving a conduit design.

Some Urbana city council members wanted to open a request for proposals on the conduit design, but Smeltzer argued that would create an unnecessary delay. He said an environmental assessment of the project must be completed by July 1 and it must have a conduit design.

He also argued that the National Telecommunications and Information Agency approved the conduit design in the consortium grant application.

Mike Monson, chief of staff to Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing, said the city wants to have a "good, thorough look at conduit design," because its consultant said seven rings as proposed are more than necessary.

The local consortium grant application proposes a network backbone of seven fiber optic rings linking local schools, hospitals, city buildings and libraries. The system would also allow hook-ups for private homes and businesses.

Smeltzer said the local consortium proposal was "the only community-based project with fiber-to-the home" funded by the NTIA.

"What that means is that what we proposed was exactly what they were looking for, or at least closer to what they were looking for than anyone else," Smeltzer said.

Monson said that city sees the broadband project as a "good opportunity."

Although the state rejected a grant application for supporting aspects of the project, including public computing centers and sustainability, those could possibly be developed on a smaller scale locally, he said.

"The consortium could decide to front the cost and charge more later," Monson said. "Teaching people to use low-cost, high-speed Internet has got to be a help."

Connections for homes in a targeted area of "underserved" residents in north Champaign and Urbana would be subsidized by the federal grant. Other residential and commercial connections would cost an estimated $3,000 each.

Speaking to the Urbana council Monday, Pradeep Khanna, vice chancellor for public engagement at the UI, said a "high throughput information infrastructure in the community is important for at least four reasons."

He said state-of-the-art digital capabilities will let faculty, staff and students "develop Web innovations from their homes or offices and allow banks, hospitals and other institutions in the community to be at the cutting edge of innovation and economic performance."

Khanna said the high-capacity network also will allow learning assignments to draw upon the Internet as well as experiment with new technologies, and major universities will "increasingly" integrate distance education as a component of classes.

The Rev. Zernial Bogan, president of the Champaign County Black Chamber of Commerce, said now that the grant is assured, the community needs an "oversight committee" to ensure that the grant money is used in the way that the consortium spelled out in its application and in the way that the grant is intended.

"We will need an advisory committee composed of all the stakeholders to give their views and to see that the things that we asked for in the grant are given," Bogan said. "The sooner we do that, the sooner we can actually implement those things."

The community then can develop strategies to deliver those services at reasonable costs, thus attracting more participation and making the project more sustainable, he said.

Big Broadband policy board

UI: Mike Smeltzer, director of networking for CITES; and Abdul Alkalimat, professor, Graduate School of Library and Information Science.

Urbana: Alderman Brandon Bowersox, Ward 4-Democrat; and Pete Resnick, C-U Cable Commission.

Champaign: Council member Deb Frank Feinen and Finance Director Richard Schnuer. (Earlier list had wrong Champaign members.)

Seventh member to the chair of the project's technical committee.

On the Net: http://uc2b.net/

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