CHAMPAIGN — City officials in Champaign and Urbana want residents and businesses to vote with their checkbooks to bring expanded broadband service to the area.
They announced on Tuesday that a competition has opened pitting Champaign-Urbana against 36 other research university communities to bring in low-cost, high-speed Internet infrastructure. Six cities will be chosen as locations where private supplier Gigabit Squared will invest in fiber optic hookups directly to homes and businesses.
Officials say it's a step that would enhance Champaign-Urbana's burgeoning Big Broadband initiative, for which a $22.5 million federal grant is helping to hook up residents in underserved areas and community institutions like schools, churches and city facilities with high-speed Internet.
"There's just one problem," said Urbana Alderman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson. "It only connects about 10 percent of the community."
That federal grant can pay for "fiber-to-the-home" hookups only in 11 neighborhoods where 40 percent or less of residents have Internet access. For more than two years since officials accepted the federal grant, they have been looking for ways to extend the fiber optic cables to the rest of the community.
This could be the way, Bowersox-Johnson said on Tuesday. But first, residents and businesses will have to prove to Gigabit Squared that there's enough interest among potential customers that the venture would be worthwhile.
Until July 30, officials will be urging potential customers — which means anyone in the Champaign-Urbana-Savoy area — to express their interest by paying up-front and expecting savings later.
For residents, interested customers will have to go online and promise to buy the service: That requires they pay a $100 fee due by July 30, a $400 installation fee for the fiber hookup if and when construction begins and at least 12 months of Internet service, starting at $30 per month for 20 megabit speeds.
According to Mike Smeltzer, director of networking for the UI, it takes about 5 megabits per second to watch a Netflix movie. So with a 20-megabit connection, a family of four could watch four movies online simultaneously with perfect audio and video.
In return, residents would get a fiber connection to their property — worth at least $3,000 and enhanced property value by Bowersox-Johnson's estimate — and an $8.50 per month discount on their Internet service for up to 60 months. The monthly discount would total $510 over the five years.
Business customers would have to pay a bit more: A $200 commitment fee would be due by July 30, an $800 installation fee at the time of construction and a commitment to 12 months of Internet service staring at $375 per month for 50 megabit speeds.
Smeltzer said a 50-megabit connection could deliver, for example, 10 high-definition football games to 10 different TVs at a sports bar.
In return, business customers would get the connection on their property and a $17 per month discount for up to 60 months. That would total $1,020 over the five years.
If Champaign-Urbana is chosen as one of the six winners, construction would begin in 2013 and be rolled out over four years. Residents and businesses have the option of paying more now and receiving higher discounts later if they want to be bumped to the top of the list as the first to receive the fiber hookups.
If Champaign-Urbana does not win, Bowersox-Johnson said the first step likely would be to find another private partner outside of the competition that would be willing to offer the same prices as Gigabit Squared. If that fails, too, then everyone's commitment fees would be refunded and officials would start considering other opportunities for a community-wide buildout.
The stakes are fairly high. The federal grant covered the cost of the main fiber backbone running through the two cities and part of Savoy, the connections to hundreds of community institutions and fiber-to-the-home in the underserved areas. But building out to the rest of the cities would cost tens of millions — Bowersox-Johnson's rough estimate was $50 million.
And the expansion is key to making the Big Broadband effort succeed, said Champaign economic development manager Teri Legner. The local agencies will be in charge of operating the Big Broadband business when it's up and running later this year, and the question all along has been whether the business will be able to support itself.
Without going beyond the grant-funded areas, Legner said the answer is probably no.
"If we don't expand, we can't be sustainable," she said.
All the connections would include gigabit speed between all Big Broadband locations, like schools and the University of Illinois, which officials say is important for personal and economic development opportunities. A gigabit-per-second connection is the same as 1,000 megabits per second.
Some of those opportunities may have yet to be imagined. Bowersox-Johnson said the community-wide broadband fiber would put Champaign-Urbana on a level with only a handful of other communities in the country as far as Internet speed and connectivity.
"I can't even imagine what this can be," said Champaign Mayor Don Gerard, "which is the most exciting part of it."