CHAMPAIGN — More than two years after organizers conceived of the project locally, they were one step closer on Tuesday to flipping the switch on the Big Broadband project and narrowing the "digital divide" in Champaign-Urbana.
Flanked by massive spools of orange conduit, political and government officials gathered in a Douglass Park soccer field to break ground as workers prepare to bury the fiber that will carry high-speed Internet to underserved areas throughout the community. Tuesday's ceremony was the kickoff to the construction phase of a huge, multi-agency, multimillion-dollar project to deliver that broadband access to 2,500 homes and businesses and 137 community buildings.
The agencies, the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois, were notified 18 months ago that they were to be the recipients of a $22.5 million federal stimulus grant to build the Internet infrastructure. That was paired with a $3 million grant from the state of Illinois and hundreds of thousands dollars more from the local agencies.
After spending the intervening months planning the network, officials gathered in Douglass Park on Tuesday with shovels and hard hats in hand. Construction crews will be burying 278 miles' worth of fiber throughout Champaign-Urbana during the next months, and organizers hope to be delivering Internet and cable service to eligible businesses and homes within the next year.
"What we've got here is a 21st century interstate system," said state Sen. Mike Frerichs.
Frerichs and others compared the new infrastructure to the advent of interstate highways in the 20th century — they said it is an important framework that will help bring jobs and other opportunities to the community as broadband access becomes a fundamental asset.
That's especially important for the local community, said Rev. Eugene Barnes, who works with underserved communities out of the Metanoia Centers, 1313 N. Clock St., C. The work targets specific areas throughout the cities where broadband access has been scarce or too expensive.
That lack of access is associated with computer illiteracy, scant economic opportunity and insufficient information about jobs — a phenomenon called the "digital divide."
"They're basically being the children left behind," Barnes said.
The project also provides some fringe benefits, interim UI Chancellor Robert Easter told the crowd. It's important for the university to be surrounded by a community that functions on the cutting edge.
"It's an opportunity to attract some of the best students in the state and the nation and the world," Easter said.
The project is expected to provide jobs in the short term during the construction phase, as well as in the long term, as it is expected to a cheaper, faster alternative to Internet services already available in the area for businesses that need a reliable connection.
"I think there's still some opportunity" to increase minority hiring, said Champaign City Council member Will Kyles. He said a canvassing effort, for which workers will knock on doors to inform residents about the fiber that will be installed on their properties, is another opportunity.
Barnes said officials should use the installation of the infrastructure to look at how technology will be used in the future and to train minority groups for the coming wave.
And Kyles is excited about the high-tech jobs that the high-speed Internet framework could attract.
That would bring "more jobs. Structures begin to look a little different. People start to get inspired and believe," Kyles said. "There's a trickle-down effect."