Urbana City Council set to review its agreement on fiber-optic network
URBANA — The city council this week will consider a resolution that some members hope will address concerns over moving forward with a plan to invite a private company to build out a high-speed, fiber-optic network throughout Champaign-Urbana and Savoy.
Council members will meet as the committee of the whole for a discussion on the topic at 7 p.m. Monday in the Urbana City Building, 400 S. Vine St.
Alderman Charlie Smyth, D-Ward 1, introduced the resolution July 30 after the council had already agreed to seek an offer from the company, Gigabit Squared, but local businesses later began telling members of their concerns over the plan.
He and Alderwoman Diane Marlin, D-Ward 7, stated their worries over lack of information given to city councils in Urbana and Champaign and about the appearance of a conflict of interest between the company, Gigabit Squared, and one of the government agencies' consultants who is advising them on how to proceed with the operation of an existing $31 million fiber-optic infrastructure.
A first draft of the resolution included a reference to that appearance of a conflict of interest, but council members ultimately decided to omit it from the version that will go for discussion tonight. "Our staff, legal staff, city of Champaign staff, the U of I, asked a bunch of these questions, and I personally feel that the business plan is fair," Alderman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson said.
Still, those concerns remain for some council members.
"We are remaining at the table with this Gigabit Squared application, even though with queasy stomachs doing it," Marlin said at the last council meeting.
A group of government agencies comprising Urbana, Champaign and the University of Illinois — better known as Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband — have submitted an application to Gigabit Squared, who has offered to build comprehensive fiber-optic networks for select university communities.
The Gigabit Squared buildout would be an expansion of the existing $31 million network, which was primarily funded by the federal government. But that "backbone" only extends to public buildings and neighborhoods where 40 percent or fewer residents have Web access.
More than 500 residents in Champaign-Urbana and Savoy committed at least $500 each to have the broadband network installed on their properties as the result of a "competition" local officials organized as a way to convince Gigabit Squared that the location would be worth the investment. There is no guarantee that Champaign-Urbana will be selected, and those residents would have their money refunded if the plan does not move forward.
The Urbana City Council in July agreed to submit the application, but the following week, Smyth said he had some concerns. That is where the resolution originated.
One, he said, is the lack of information that has been given to the three agencies about the proposal. Another is the question of whether ownership the network itself — which Smyth believes should be open to local Internet providers and others who can make use of it — would fall into the hands of a private company that would make network access difficult.
The resolution would recommend that Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband officials explore alternate options for building out the network. That could include public ownership or soliciting offers from different private providers, but it does not necessarily exclude the Gigabit Squared option.
It would also recommend that the group hire a general manager to oversee operations and maintenance of the existing network and that it seek full disclosure on the relationships between Gigabit Squared and the Big Broadband group's consultants and representatives.
"None of us like to be rushed under this veil of secrecy, being told what to do, when we're the ones ultimately responsible for decisions," Smyth said during the July 30 meeting.