Still no deal to build out UC2B

Still no deal to build out UC2B

CHAMPAIGN — A year and a half later, local officials still have few answers about what will become of $400,000 committed by Champaign-Urbana residents toward the expansion of a high-speed, fiber-optic network while delays plague similar efforts in Chicago and Seattle.

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More than 500 households and businesses committed that money in July 2012 to show a willingness to purchase high-speed Internet services over the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband network and to be among the first to get hooked up to the grid when it was built.

Today, there's still no deal to build that network beyond the federal grant-funded portion that was extended to low-income neighborhoods, even though organizers say it is a crucial long-term piece to keep the existing $31 million network in business.

UC2B manager Sabrina Gosnell said on Wednesday that talks are continuing with a few potential private partners, but there's still no timeline of when an expansion might proceed.

"We are exploring options, and I'm not exaggerating when I say we spend time every day pushing this forward," Gosnell said.

Gigabit Squared, the first private company that came on the radar to build the network and the impetus for the July 2012 pledge drive, is now facing scrutiny in Chicago and Seattle. It had announced similar build-out projects in portions of those cities, but now faces delays.

A deal to build a network in Seattle has fallen through. Then-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn told tech blog GeekWire last month that the company was having problems securing financing to build the network, and early 2014 launch dates were canceled.

Delays have also been reported in the company's plan to roll out high-speed Internet access to 100,000 residents and 11,000 students on Chicago's south side near the University of Chicago.

Spokespeople for Gigabit Squared did not return messages seeking comment on Wednesday.

UC2B officials have alternative plans in the hopper. After they expressed their interest in Gigabit Squared's plans, they sought proposals from other private companies who might be able to do the work, too.

"We are actually speaking currently with a couple of potential options, a couple potential private partners," Gosnell said.

When residents and business owners pledged their $400,000 in July 2012, they agreed that the money might be applied to a buildout with any company — not just Gigabit Squared. That means the money will remain in escrow under the control of the city of Champaign until UC2B officials figure out how they will proceed.

"We won't be taking anyone's money without applying it to expansion," Gosnell said. "If it ends up not being Gigabit Squared who we partner with, we don't know what pledges will look like. It depends on the company."

Gosnell said she does not think anyone involved expected it would take this long to find a private partner to invest in a network buildout. UC2B has issued refunds to 21 people, she said, and those who committed money can pull out by calling (217) 366-UC2B or emailing support@uc2b.net.

Gosnell added, however, that UC2B has taken additional pledges since the initial commitment period. She said they've taken more new pledges than refunds they've given.

People who contact UC2B looking for a refund are usually doing so because it has been so long or because they have not heard anything. Gosnell said about half those people chose to leave their money in the pool when officials explain where they're at.

She assured residents that UC2B is not intentionally hiding any information about its plans.

"I know sometimes people think we're deliberately obfuscating, and we're not," Gosnell said. "We're moving things along as quickly as we can, and there's just not much to report."

Part of the reason for the delay, she said, was that officials first had to transfer the existing, grant-funded network from the hands of the city to a private nonprofit agency.

That nonprofit status gives it the ability to negotiate with potential investors in private, without being subject to open meetings or records laws. Much of the information exchanged in negotiations is proprietary, Gosnell said, and potential builders are not eager to alert companies like Comcast or AT&T to what they're up to.

The nonprofit is only within the past couple months in full swing and has taken over operation of the existing UC2B network from the cities and University of Illinois.

"We're operations, so we're doing a lot of troubleshooting with customers, billing, that sort of thing," Gosnell said. "A big piece of what (executive director) Bill (DeJarnette) and I do are related to expansion. That's our big goal right now."

It's a big goal because, in the early days of the network a couple years ago, officials said they would eventually need more customers to be financially sustainable. "It's a necessity, honestly," Gosnell said.

"In order to succeed, we have to build out to the rest of the community," she said.

What next?

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787 wrote on January 09, 2014 at 8:01 am

Patrick Wade:

Here's a question:  Exactly how many people in these "low income" areas have seen a benefit from this $31 million investment?  

If this $31 million investment has cost less than $10,000 per low income customer, I'll be very surprised.

Patrick Wade wrote on January 09, 2014 at 9:01 pm
Profile Picture

Thanks for your comment.

Last I checked, UC2B had signed up around 1,300 customers. There are also a few hundred "anchor institutions" (schools, community centers, churches, government buildings, etc.) which are hooked up to the network to provide and receive service.

So while you could do the easy math and say it cost somewhere around $24,000 per subscriber, you also have to consider the intangible benefits the network provides to schools, churches and government services. Included in that figure is the opportunity cost of providing access to the Internet where it hasn't always been accessible — the "digital divide" as they call it.

UC2B is also developing a community fund to come up with money for things like computer classes and other educational opportunities. Judge the merits of those efforts as you will.

Political Observer wrote on January 11, 2014 at 2:01 am

A number of years ago, the News-Gazette used to have a very good science, technology and computer-issues reporter and columnist by the name of Greg Klein.  Mr. Klein understood the technical topics he wrote about, he had a talent for taking complex issues and writing about them in such a way that readers could easily follow along, he was fair in how he addressed any controversial issues that came up in the course of his reporting, and he was a true journalist, in every sense of the word.

Ever since he's been gone, though, one can't help but get the impression that there's hardly anybody left (at what's now the good ole Noose-Garotte) who can even understand science, technology and computer issues well enough to report on them. 

And so we end up getting slanted, hack-writing attacks like this one, that seem like opinion pieces written for people who hate government and want to destroy as much of it as they possibly can.

Patrick Wade, his editor and the News-Gazette really owe UC2B and this community an apology for the many misrepresentations in this article. 

Political Observer wrote on January 11, 2014 at 2:01 am

Interestingly enough, as if this attack job on UC2B isn't bad enough by itself, it turns out that this isn't the first time that this kind of thing has happened, with regard to the newspaper's coverage of the Big Broadband issue.  Indeed, just last May in a News-Gazette Guest Commentary, Michael Hosier found it neceessary to respond to the paper's UC2B coverage by writing:

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There have been issues with UC2B which were highlighted in the [News-Gazette's May 30th] editorial and also in Patrick Wade's May 26 article. Unfortunately, The News-Gazette's editors have chosen to focus only on the negative aspects of a largely successful project. I don't expect The News-Gazette to be a cheerleader for UC2B, but by not including anything positive, The News-Gazette's editors have misled the community they serve.

http://www.news-gazette.com/opinion/guest-commentary/2013-06-09/guest-co...

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In this same Guest Commentary, Mr. Hosier went on to add:

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Both the May 26 article and the May 30 editorial completely overlooked the Community Anchor Institutions that already have benefited and will benefit from UC2B in the near future. The residential component of UC2B that was featured by The News-Gazette is an important component, but there is more to UC2B than its residential subscribers.

When work is completed later this year Community Anchor Institutions will have a UC2B network providing them with better (faster and more reliable) Internet connectivity at lower costs. Also worth noting is that the 231 Community Anchor Institutions connected by the end of the grant will exceed the original projection of 143 in the original application.

There are many UC2B success stories. One example is Champaign Unit 4 Schools, formerly paying AT&T almost $75,000 per month for 100 Mbps connectivity. Now, connected to the CTC 1 Gbps network, the Unit 4 School District has better connectivity and will save close to $500,000 per year because of the UC2B project.

Another, the City of Champaign, was contemplating building its own fiber network because the connectivity they needed was cost-prohibitive from AT&T. If the City had built its own fiber network, it would have cost between $3 and $4 million, and could have taken up to 3 years to complete. Champaign's local match to the UC2B project was less than $500,000 and its fiber network will be operational later this summer.

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The whole commentary by Mr. Hosier is well-worth reading, because he set out in a very matter-of-fact manner a number of important details that the News-Gazette left out of their May 26 reporting and their May 30 editorial.  And once those missing details were supplied, it was clear that whatever case they were trying to build (for, God knows, whatever reason) simply evaporated into thin air, as yet another of their many failed attempts at bamboozlement of their dwindling readership could be immediately seen for what it was.

Oh, yeah, here's one last thing I just absolutely can't forget to mention:  After Mr. Hosier systematically illustrated what the News-Gazette had done in trying to trick their readers into hating UC2B, he ended his Guest Commentary with this true zinger of a last paragraph:

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It is worth nothing that The News-Gazette and WDWS use UC2B fiber connected to the CTC network and have dropped their Comcast Internet connections. Apparently this "big boondoggle" identified by The News-Gazette still is able to meet their needs.

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Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding!  We have a winner!

And the News-Gazette is "hoist on their own petard" once again!

Political Observer wrote on January 11, 2014 at 3:01 am

Another article, well-worth taking a look at for getting the background material that Mr. Wade leaves out of the present article, is this piece, that was written back when the UC2B project was first in the process of being set up:

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http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2009-05-20/committee-discuss-comm...

A proposal to install a community-owned fiber-optic network throughout Champaign-Urbana would cost at least $30 million – possibly as much as $35 million.

But with the federal government possibly providing up to 80 percent of that cost through its stimulus program, the cities and the University of Illinois can't afford to miss what amounts to "an amazing opportunity," said Michael Smeltzer, director of networking for the UI, who is leading a public effort locally to apply for the federal funding.

"Absolutely, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Smeltzer said. "Where else can you invest a dollar and get five back in the community? This is the best opportunity I've seen in the last 12 years, and I don't think this opportunity will come along again."

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The article later adds that, in addition to the big broadband connections for homes, businesses and the UI,

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"Eight backbone rings would be built throughout Champaign-Urbana that would connect every public and private school, city facilities, libraries, nursing homes, hospitals and medical clinics to big broadband, which can provide 100 megabits of information per second or faster."

Political Observer wrote on January 11, 2014 at 3:01 am

So, when Mr. Wade writes in his post above about the "intangible benefits the network provides to schools, churches and government services," it's important to realize that, in addition to the intangible benefits the network is providing to these Anchor Institutions, it's also saving them very considerable, TANGIBLE amounts of money on their internet connections each month, as well.

LocalTownie wrote on January 09, 2014 at 8:01 am

If the whole thing fails, how does this affect the people in low income areas who currently have the service?

Joe American wrote on January 09, 2014 at 4:01 pm

Jut a wild guess......they go back to buying their own service like everyone else does?

LocalTownie wrote on January 10, 2014 at 8:01 am

I think you misunderstood my comment. If UC2B doesn't expand as the article states, does UC2B still continue to serve the lower income areas, or will UC2B fold? Obviously if they went completely under and shut down people would have to look for other service.


I happen to live in one of those areas, judge me if you will. We own our home and were offered the opportunity to have UC2B installed and we absolutely love the service, it's much faster than Comcast ever was.  By the way, we don't receive UC2B for free.  We do pay monthly. So your comment "go back to buying their own service like everyone else" is a very incorrect statement.

cretis16 wrote on January 09, 2014 at 9:01 am

What a colossal waste if money. I think the entire cities of CU could have been provided a new laptop and years of comast for free and still save money. I never liked the concept that giverment is allowed to compete with private enterprise while being funded by the vey people they are competing against.

DEB wrote on January 09, 2014 at 9:01 am

Where do I sign up?  I am so sick of the lousy customer service and astronomical prices of Comcast I'd switch in a minute.

SGosnell wrote on January 09, 2014 at 10:01 am

I would also like to point out that Champaign-Urbana was named one of Techie.com's top ten most promising tech hubs to watch in 2014. One of the criteria for this was, "Cities that have, or are building out physical infrastructure including fiber optic rings".

Read the full article here:

http://techie.com/techie-coms-most-promising-tech-hubs-to-watch-in-2014/

Marti Wilkinson wrote on January 09, 2014 at 6:01 pm

I subscribe to UC2B, and I pay for the service. I have never received online services for free, and I've had Internet access since 1998. The News-Gazette has a history of being very negative in their reporting of UC2B and the services that are provided. I also worked for the cable company when they first rolled out their services, and there were many kinks in the system before they offered it to the entire community. AT&T didn't even offer DSL service in my area until 2007. Simply put, private industry doesn't necessarily offer a better option or alternative for anyone. 

dsandel wrote on January 10, 2014 at 8:01 am

The Loop Data Rail in St. Louis has been able to resolve many of the issues related to Gigabit networks. Take a look at http://loopdatarail.org

 

 

C-U Townie wrote on January 10, 2014 at 9:01 am

What I find most disturbing about the negative comments surrounding UC2B is the absolute lack of perspective. This is why the country falters as it does. Everything is focused solely on the immediate results of spending. Even research takes time and delves into the long term quantitative and qualitative measuresments of success. How do we know exactly how this has positively or negatively affected the community. 

I also see this as the same argument that some politicians have had and still have. They want the low income man to be self-sustaining withhout any appreciation for the plight of someone facing financial hardship.

This service gives children access to internet that they might not have had it, other  than at school. It gives adults access to internet for school, communication, job applications. The Unit 4 school district communicates via email when things happen, like soft/hard lockdowns. Walk into Barnes & Noble and ask for an application and they'll direct you to go online and apply. Many applications are online now and not in paper form. Families in need of other services can now find those services online, in the privacy of their own homes. 

This service can keep individuals up to date on a variety of important topics, possibly encouraging them to be more engaged with those topics. The internet is becoming a necessity in the world. We are moving more into the digital dependence, not away. To leave some behind is unnecessary, especially when there are services being offered for free or nearly free.

So stop complaining. You aren't being asked to donate a vital organ.