Big Broadband seeking information on building out network

Big Broadband seeking information on building out network

CHAMPAIGN — Officials are seeking information for other ways they might consider expanding a high-speed, fiber-optic network beyond what was allowed under a federal grant.

Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband — or UC2B — this week released an official "request for information" for qualified people who have expertise to offer or might be able to partner with the agency on building out the network.

The existing $31 million UC2B network extends only to public buildings and "underserved" neighborhoods, where 40 percent or less of households have Internet access. The federal government and the state were the primary source of funds for the first phase of the network, but any expansion will be on somebody else's dime.

The official request for information comes on the heels of a UC2B application to Gigabit Squared, a private company which plans to invest up to $200 million throughout the country on community network buildouts. Champaign-Urbana officials think they have a good shot at being one of those areas selected.

Detractors from the Gigabit Squared plan say allowing a private company to build, own and manage the community network puts open access at risk. They worry that if it goes bankrupt or is sold, the network could fall into the hands of a profit-driven telecommunications giant, like Comcast or AT&T.

Within the past few weeks, opponents have been pushing for local agencies to explore other options, and the Champaign and Urbana city councils have agreed.

"We heard what both councils were interested in, so we're ready to solicit that," said Champaign economic development manager Teri Legner.

UC2B officials do not expect to hear back from Gigabit Squared for at least a couple months. In the meantime, they will explore what other options may be available apart from the private company.

The Urbana City Council recently has heard presentations on what a publicly financed network might look like. Peter Folk, the president of Champaign-based Volo Broadband, has been heading an effort to drum up support for a co-op model.

The request for information "is an opportunity to find out what's out there," Legner said.