CHAMPAIGN — It took three tries to a call center in Charleston before one Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband customer got much help.
On the first call, he spoke to "Jody," who bounced him to "Jane." Jane set up a 3 p.m. same-day appointment for a technician to visit and solve the customer's problem.
Nobody ever showed up.
The customer, whose name was redacted in documents provided by the city to The News-Gazette, dialed 366-UC2B again at 4:30 p.m. "Sarah" connected him to "Thomas." Thomas said a switch needed to be flipped for the customer's Internet service to work.
"I asked him how am I supposed to know when that will happen and that somebody still has to show me how to connect it and use it," the customer wrote in a complaint.
Thomas "chuckled" and said he could schedule an appointment two or three days from then.
The customer wanted to speak to a manager, so one more time, he dialed 366-UC2B. "Mandy" referred him to "Adam," the manager, who said he could do nothing more than confirm the appointment.
"I feel that there are major communication issues with UC2B and 'Thomas' could use some customer service training," the subscriber wrote.
Complaints like this customer's were "not overwhelmingly atypical," as evidenced by a pile of emails between the city and its contractor doing the work to hook residents up to the high-speed network the city has nearly finished building with a $30 million price tag.
"This issue remains unresolved, and the subscriber remains (rightfully) unhappy," a city employee wrote in an email to the contractor.
The phones that ring when customers dial 366-UC2B have been getting more action than Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband officials originally envisioned. In fact, when Champaign, Urbana and the University of Illinois jointly accepted a federal grant in 2010 to bring high-speed networking and Internet access to Champaign-Urbana's least-connected neighborhoods, they never even thought they would need a call center.
The government agencies advertise gigabit speeds — faster Internet than Comcast provides — and UC2B will do it cheaper, too. But just like with Comcast, the service requests and customer complaints have been coming in, and there are more of them than city officials ever imagined there would be.
"We are a business," said Champaign economic development manager Teri Legner. "We never, ever envisioned that."
Those involved with the work place the blame in a number of areas. When Champaign city officials volunteered to take the lead on the grant over Urbana and the UI, they were saddled with most of the administrative duties.
Nearly three years later, hundreds of customers are still waiting to be connected, and many have complained. It was enough of a frustration for city officials that the original contractor in charge of the installations was kicked off the project, even though the workers say the city mismanaged a lot of the installation duties.
Legner said the "unestimated or underestimated" issues that come with selling high-speed Internet to residents have been many, and she is looking forward to the day that city officials can distance themselves from the network after they turn it over to a nonprofit agency they will establish to run the business.
Until then, the problems are the city's.
The call center
About 850 subscribers and counting are using the cities' network, and they have questions when technical issues arise — or when they are dissatisfied with the way their homes have been connected to the network.
When they look for a phone number to call, they will invariably find 366-UC2B. The number will connect them to Charleston-based Solix Inc., which the city has hired as its front-line problem solvers for UC2B customers.
The city has provided a script and training for the customer service reps at the Solix call center — everything from technical issues to billing to complaints.
But still, Solix representatives don't have all the answers.
"I couldn't understand her and she couldn't understand what I was trying to say," said Larry Roberts, a Champaign resident in the Garden Hills neighborhood. His property lies along where main lines were installed.
He called after UC2B contractors installed a main portion of fiber adjacent to his front yard during the latter part of last year. They dug up his lawn and never put it back. He is not even a subscriber.
"Nothing's going to regrow the way they left it," Roberts said.
Roberts said he has been calling 366-UC2B, and call center employees have bounced him around.
According to Legner, when the Solix phone operators can't answer a question, callers are transferred to "tier 2" support. The second-line problem solvers are city or University of Illinois employees who have more technical expertise and the ability to visit callers' properties to get a firsthand look at the issue.
Roberts said he spoke with a woman two to three weeks ago who said she would come look at his property to resolve his complaint about his torn-up lawn. As of May 21, she had not visited.
Complaints like Roberts' are not unusual and appear often in email correspondence between city officials and the contractor, Power Up Electrical, which was hired to install the network on residents' properties.
Workers drilled big holes in customers' walls to run cable and often left them unfilled. Siding was broken. Network equipment was left unsecured or installed in strange places. And on some occasions, workers allegedly were told to dig before utilities like natural gas lines were located.
Customers had a lot of problems with workers not showing up on time. The customer who spoke to Jody, Jane, Sarah, Thomas, Mandy and Adam had taken the day off work, and the technicians never showed up.
"'Thomas' chuckled at me and said at this point he could not schedule anybody to come to my house until Friday (11/30) or Saturday (12/1)," the customer wrote in his complaint.
Sabrina Gosnell, a Champaign city employee who focuses on the administration of UC2B, forwarded the complaint to Power Up and left a comment of her own: "Unfortunately, situations like this are not overwhelmingly atypical," she wrote in a Nov. 29 email.
"Please let this example be illustrative of the frustrations we have faced in the past months, and let it perhaps shed some light on our collective impatience with this kind of behavior toward our subscribers," she wrote.
City officials were upset enough with the contractor that, this month, they removed Power Up Electrical from the deal entirely. Western Utility contractors will finish installations for roughly 450 customers, who have been waiting for months.
That contract was never put out for bids, which the city is not required to do. By Power Up President Michael Kennedy's count, city officials plan to pay Western Utility five times the amount of money per install that his company was receiving.
Kennedy said mistakes were made on both sides that led to the new contract.
"Our mistakes, I believe, were manageable," Kennedy said. "We responded to the issues of the folks that we were training, and we're proud of the job we did."
Nearly one year ago, city council members celebrated when they awarded the $1.6 million installation contract to St. Louis-based Power Up Electrical, the first minority-owned business to receive such high-valued work in Champaign. Finding jobs for local residents — particularly minorities — was one of the project's primary goals.
Champaign-based Volo Broadband was hired as Power Up's subcontractor and was in charge of the field work. Volo CEO Peter Folk said his company hired and trained local workers to do the installations.
He also said UC2B itself shares some of the blame for the problems customers experienced. The large holes drilled into customers' outside walls were necessary because of the kind of cable UC2B purchased. And much of the work was done hurriedly because officials did not release the customer lists to the installers until nearly three months after the work was supposed to start.
When Power Up and Volo finally got the list of properties where they were to install network cable, 18 percent of those customers could not be reached.
"Even more were not interested," Folk said. "The rest of them were annoyed that they had not been communicated with in three to six months."
Power Up and Volo Broadband installed fiber cable for 850 customers between August 2012 and January 2013. Another 450 are still waiting.
And when Power Up lost the contract to hook up the remainder, Volo Broadband lost the work, too.
"We had a really tough job to do, and we did a decent job at it," Folk told the city council just before it approved the change order on May 14.
University Park-based Western Utility plans to hire Omaha-based G4S Technology as its subcontractor. On its website, G4S boasts "strong project management expertise and superior customer service."
Folk said that means the two companies will bring in their own workers, local employees will lose their jobs, and the money will go out of the community.
Right now, the costs the city incurs on UC2B-related work are all reimbursed by the federal government as a result of the grant the local government agencies accepted in 2010. That grant runs out Sept. 30, and after that, the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the UI are on the hook for cost of running the network.
That means all the construction needs to be done by then. It also means that administrative work will start being billed to local tax dollars.
When the cities began to build the network, they had hoped it would run like a business, where subscriber revenues and other business deals would cover expenses. The working theory was that officials needed a 54 percent "take rate," the number of potential customers in the underserved neighborhoods that needed to buy the service to keep the business in the black.
Legner said the goal was to have 2,700 customers installed by the time the grant ran out. Canvassers made 17,000 visits to 4,500 potential customers. Today, 850 billable customers are hooked up and 450 are waiting. That adds up to 1,300 customers — less than half of what is needed.
"That impacts revenues, and our costs are still the same costs," Legner said.
Subscriber revenue is only one source of money, and there are other ways to cover the expenses, she said. Especially as city officials look to expand the network to the rest of the community — right now it is only available across portions of Champaign-Urbana defined by the federal grant — they hope they can find a private partner to take on some of the risk of running the network.
That process has already started. UC2B officials issued a request for proposals last year and have been talking with potential private partners during the past few months.
City officials have also begun the process of putting themselves at "arm's length" from the network. The plan is to establish a nonprofit entity run by a nine-member board appointed by the local government agencies involved in the project — Champaign, Urbana and the University of Illinois.
That will remove the administrative duties from the hands of the city — duties they never particularly wanted in the first place — and keep the business separate from government tie-ups.
"It's pretty intimidating, but it's pretty exciting knowing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel," Legner said.
And through all the "underestimated" issues of a government agency providing Internet service to its residents, Legner said, there are uses for the high-speed network that have yet to be dreamed that will make the whole project worthwhile.
"I really in my heart believe that this has so much potential that we can't even think about today," Legner said.