Gigabit Squared renews interest in C-U

CHAMPAIGN — City officials say Gigabit Squared has renewed its interest in expanding a high-speed, fiber-optic network throughout Champaign-Urbana months after its "competition" for which more than 500 people committed nearly $400,000.

After this summer's competition, city officials said Gigabit Squared fell somewhat silent on the proposal. Now talks are in motion, and a city council vote tonight could move them further along.

The council is set to vote on a contract to pay a consultant $100,000 to assist with firming up the details of the multimillion dollar expansion of the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband network.

If the council approves the contract during its meeting at 7 p.m. in the Champaign City Building at 102 N. Neil St., that consultant would negotiate with and select a preferred business partner from among four who have expressed interest in expanding the network. One of those four is Gigabit Squared.

"They just contacted us and said they are interested in talking to us further," said Champaign economic development manager Teri Legner.

The negotiations are prompted by Gigabit Squared's renewed interest, Legner told a UC2B subcommittee last month, but hiring a consultant to evaluate the other proposals from companies that responded to a city solicitation for alternatives will enable officials to consider all options.

Legner said city officials had a conference call with Gigabit Squared on Monday to discuss how to move forward and to become familiar with similar projects the company has initiated in Chicago and Seattle.

"It was more of a reacquaintance phone call," Legner said.

The first $31 million worth of federally funded fiber-optic cables are in the ground. The grant paid for connections to homes in Champaign-Urbana neighborhoods where most residents did not have Internet access, but now city and University of Illinois officials are looking for ways to complete an expensive expansion to the rest of the community.

Paying for that expansion is another story, which is why city officials have sought private companies to build the remainder of the network and why they are seeking to hire a consultant, Columbia Telecommunications Corp., to lead the negotiations.

But some Urbana City Council members are interested in exploring whether it might be feasible to build the rest of the network with public funds.

Columbia Telecommunications Corp. has done business with UC2B before, and its president, Joanne Hovis, has rated the Gigabit Squared proposal high. But the company was instrumental in helping the city seek other proposals, Legner said.

That distinction is important, city officials say, since some industry professionals felt that UC2B was being pushed toward Gigabit Squared instead of considering alternatives.

Urbana Alderman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, a member of the UC2B subcommittee that recommended approval of the contract, said during last month's meeting he is comfortable moving forward with Columbia Telecommunications Corp. as the group's negotiator.

"I think that to the extent that any of our other (request-for-information) responses also have strength and good aspects, I think that CTC (Columbia Telecommunications) and Joanne (Hovis) will take them all fairly," Bowersox-Johnson said.

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