Nonprofit to oversee UC2B

Officials approve agreement after details tweaked

CHAMPAIGN — An effort to distance the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband network from government control has made it past both city councils this week after Champaign officials finalized their approval Tuesday night.

The agreement to create a private nonprofit entity to run the high-speed Internet network passed with several key changes — including provisions on minority contractors, openness of board meetings and what happens to the network infrastructure if the nonprofit fails — since the two councils met in a rare joint session last week.

The updated agreement — approved in Champaign on Tuesday and in Urbana on Monday — includes a requirement that the nonprofit submit an annual report to the cities and that the network's high, self-imposed standards for procuring minority contractors be maintained.

Another new provision, which Urbana Alderman Charlie Smyth proposed on Monday and said is "critical to my support of this," is that attendees at board meetings of the nonprofit be allowed to give public input at those meetings.

The nonprofit board will not have to abide by the state's Open Meetings Act, which has strict requirements for advance public notification of meetings and the accessibility of meetings. Officials in both cities fear that applying the strict requirements to the nonprofit board would hamstring its efficiency.

"This is an entity that Comcast or others, AT&T, could consider a competitor, and we don't really want the public accessibility of the meetings turned to private gain," said Urbana Alderman Eric Jakobsson.

Until now, the $30 million UC2B project has received most of its funding from the federal government. The cities and the University of Illinois received a federal grant in 2010 that paid for Big Broadband's construction in underserved neighborhoods to bolster Internet access in low-income areas.

That grant expires Sept. 30, and any expenses the network incurs after that will be on the shoulders of the local governments if it is still in their control. City officials hope to have the network spun off into a private nonprofit by that time, but they expect it will still need some help from the cities for the first six months or so to get off the ground.

After that, they expect the network to run like a business — with revenues covering all its expenses and without public subsidy. Public control of the nonprofit agency that runs the network will be limited by its legal status, and that has concerned some community members who have been involved with its development up to this point.

Some of those worries persisted in comments to the Urbana City Council on Monday night. Ken Salo, a lecturer in regional and urban planning at the University of Illinois, said the network should remain in the public domain and board meetings should always be open to the public.

"Information is a key public good that is an essential part of a healthy democracy for an informed citizenship," Salo said.

The nonprofit will be governed by a nine-member board, and the cities of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois will each appoint three members to that board. Champaign council member Deborah Frank Feinen suggested that is how the government agencies can ensure it operates in the best interests of the public.

Champaign council member Tom Bruno said the city councils' approval of the agreement was a big step for UC2B.

"I think this is a great step forward and a great night for this project that our community has put so much time and effort into," Bruno said.

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