Potential users imagine benefits of Big Broadband in Champaign-Urbana

Potential users imagine benefits of Big Broadband in Champaign-Urbana

By JOEL STEINFELDT For The News-Gazette

CHAMPAIGN – This summer, Tanya Weatherly will again decide between having Internet access at home and paying her other utility bills.

Although she gets financial help from her fiance, Gordon Turner Jr., in past years she's canceled her Internet access until the fall, when the weather is cooler and it's more comfortable to be inside. "We're always asking: 'Do we have enough money to pay the Comcast bill?' " Weatherly said.

Before she could afford home access for part of the year, Weatherly, 34, and her daughter, LaShelle Allen, 17, would go to the Douglass Branch Library or the main Champaign Public Library building to pursue their educations online.

Her daughter, who is studying violin and guitar while she attends Central High School, uses the Web to do research and write reports for her classes. Weatherly, who was laid off from her job as a cosmetology educator, is taking a college-accredited humanities class at Douglass Branch, part of the Odyssey Project, a year-long course offered at no charge to adults who live below or slightly above the federal poverty level to help them return to college.

"It does make a great deal of difference to have access to the Internet," Weatherly said. "It's a little expensive but it's almost a must-have. If we had it cheaper I'd be online more often doing a paper," she said, smiling.

Getting people like Weatherly online at a lower expense is the goal for the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband group, a consortium of the twin cities and the University of Illinois that recently was awarded $22.5 million from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to build a high-speed fiber optic network in the two cities. Planning is under way for the installation of the fiber optic rings in 2011.

The project will provide low-cost access – $20 monthly – to 2,500 low-income homes in seven areas in the twin cities identified as underserved, said Mike Smeltzer, a key organizer who also is director of networking services for Campus Information Technologies and Education Services at the UI.

But UC2B, as the project is known, is more than getting people online – it's what they do online after they're connected, said the Rev. Zernial Bogan of the Salem Baptist Church, which serves members who live in the underserved areas. The last two letters in the acronym may stand for big broadband, he said, but you could also think of it as Urbana-Champaign "to be."

"We want to give them opportunities," Bogan said. "It's easy to lose focus when you're talking big money. It's really about serving the under-represented."

Bogan was speaking to fellow members of the broadband project's Cyber Church Committee on April 28 in a small conference room at Salem Baptist Church at 500 E. Park St. on Champaigns north side. Salem is serving as the pilot church in the Cyber Church initiative.

Bogan and church members Connie Dillard-Myers, a non-voting member of UC2B and one of the church's technology specialists, Deacon Joe Lewis and his wife, Carol, a deaconess and president of the National Council of Negro Women Inc. in Campaign County, are working together to advise local churches on how to proceed. Christopher Hamb, a new media specialist and owner of Chrisp Media in Champaign, is advising the group.

While the committee's topics are fairly mundane – they're discussing door key security, sign-in sheets, and physical lock-down procedures for the 10 newer computers in the church's new computer lab – the implications of the preparations they're making for local churches when the network goes live are sublime:

Live streaming of worship services, choral performances and board meetings so shut-ins can attend as well as anyone else in the global audience. Gospel concerts online where you can donate to the church and buy a copy of the singer's album with the click of a PayPal button. A place where children and seniors can surf the Web without fear of phishing scams, identity theft, pornography and violence. Online classes at the UI. Free online access, including wireless access on church grounds. Online collaboration via teleconference with other churches.

"We want to use technology to spread the word of the Lord and bring people into the church," Bogan said, He means more than Salem Baptist Church – he's emphasizing Christianity as a whole, he said.

But while Bogan wants to use the Web to save your spirit, Malik Abdullah, 47, just wants to move your soles.

The bass player for Big Mo and the Phat Groove, an Urbana-based blues band, has played the bass since he was 15 years old, he said. "I picked up the bass and never put it down."

Abdullah mixes digital music files files at home and sends them as attachments when he needs to share the music. He used to link them from the band's website,  Abdullah said, but money constraints kept him from keeping the domain registered, and he had to let it go.

Access to big broadband would give him the ability to use music collaboration Web sites to jam and compose in real time with other musicians around the globe, but his current computer is too slow and his connection to the Web isn't stable enough to eliminate lag time making it impossible to record online. Big broadband access would make that possible, he said.

Abdullah, who also is a student in the Odyssey Project, said his girlfriend wants him to get a music degree, but his income makes it difficult for him to return to school. But it's the ability to improve life through education that's the most important for the underserved areas.

"We are way down the list in terms of education," he said. "(Big broadband) would bring (online students) into school and change the way they see their friends, their heroes, their neighbors," Abdullah said.

"For some people, the only way out is the Army," he said.

For Darlene Wilson-Johnson, 49, and her son, Brandon, 14, there are only two ways for her to get access to the Web at work at her job in the Office of Vital Statistics for the Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department or at the Champaign library. Also an Odyssey Project student, she uses the Web to work on papers, and visit news websites; and she and her son both use social networks, Facebook and MySpace, respectively.

"I would have to have it affordable or free, or I would have to go to someone else's house (for access)," she said. Having access at home would change her life and her son's life, she said. "I would love for him to go out there and do his assignments, (especially) algebra," and to get help with and information about his homework, she said. "I would love to get into my PJs and get on it. If we had Internet we could do things together."

It's bringing people together into larger groups that is most important, Bogan said. "(It's) the ability to use the Web as a vehicle to reach other people," he said. "But more than that, (to connect) church to church, church to community."

In late May, the Salem Baptist Church board tentatively approved the church's participation in the Cyber Church initiative, especially the use of the computer lab.

The board wants to see more concrete plans before giving 100 percent approval. Bogan and the Cyber Church committee are meeting to organize an internship program using Noah Lenstra, a student with the UI Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Lenstra will begin training high school juniors and seniors, who will be paid for 15 hours a week, to work on websites and to teach others Internet-related skills. The program is accredited with the UI and helps them gain entrance to the UI. If the internship program goes well, the church board will likely give full approval, Bogan said.

"We're like pioneers," Bogan said. "We're paving the way."

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