Updated: UC2B makes deal to widen fiber network

Updated: UC2B makes deal to widen fiber network

CHAMPAIGN — After more than a year in waiting, residents who committed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the expansion of Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband finally have an answer about its future.

During the next few years, officials announced Thursday, the network will be built out to more Champaign-Urbana neighborhoods — a crucial step forward in keeping the system afloat over the long run. And much as they envisioned, it will be a private company that comes in to do the work.

Family Video subsidiary iTV-3 will take over the operation, maintenance and customer service of what's now operating as UC2B. The network's 1,100 customers will be allowed to continue on their existing contracts if they choose. Moving forward, however, they will get their service from the private provider instead of UC2B.

But the linchpin of the deal has bigger ambitions: iTV-3 also plans to build out the high-speed fiber network to neighborhoods where at least half of the residents agree to purchase a subscription. That means hard-wired and high-speed Internet, TV and voice connections to homes which can muster up support in their areas.

Officials hope that, eventually, the high-speed fiber network will reach every home in the community.

"It was articulated that that was what we would need to sustain this and grow this," said UC2B manager Sabrina Gosnell.

The existing $31 million network, which the cities and the University of Illinois cooperated to build mostly with federal grant money, is now somewhat limited in scope. The grant-funded portion of the network reaches only low-income neighborhoods where Internet access had not previously been prevalent — part of government agencies' goal to roll out access to crucial online services in disadvantaged areas.

When they set out to build the network in 2009, local officials always knew they would have to find a way to expand the network to the rest of the community to keep afloat the business that has essentially turned into an Internet service provider — something like Comcast or AT&T on a smaller scale.

The deal relieves UC2B of the business side of the network, Gosnell said.

"The not-for-profit is a startup for all intents and purposes," she said. "It's not easy to be a startup. It's especially not easy to be a startup ISP."

The Internet service provider arm of UC2B started as a function of Champaign city government before it was officially turned into its own private nonprofit agency last October. Gosnell said that, in November, iTV-3 expressed interested in building out the network.

It will be a big investment — expected to be around tens of millions of dollars — for iTV-3 to expand the fiber network to neighborhoods which are not already covered in the two cities. Residents anywhere can now visit http://www.theperfectupgrade.com to commit to buying the service — iTV-3 will be obligated to build fiber infrastructure in any neighborhood where 50 percent or more residents sign up.

That's actually an important business strategy, Bowersox-Johnson said, with the high costs of building fiber infrastructure.

"Ultimately, that's what we want," he said. "We need them to build in neighborhoods where there's enough people to stay afloat."

Keith Hoogland, the president of iTV-3 and Family Video, said on Thursday that he thinks the deal is a "very good fit" for the Illinois-based business.

"This all took a lot of effort to get everyone together," Hoogland said.

He added that Family Video stores will serve as sort of a drop-in customer service point for people who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with fiber service.

"I think that people are going to be able to use Family Video as an information source," Hoogland said.

The nonprofit agency called UC2B which is currently running the network will drop its operations, maintenance and customer service responsibilities. It will instead begin to focus on promoting digital literacy and getting the word out about the buildout, said UC2B board chairman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson.

And the nonprofit will have a role in rallying residents to sign up.

"If you can sign up half of your neighbors, you will get this in your neighborhood," Bowersox-Johnson said.

And the rallying has already begun. Both mayors are already in on the effort — Champaign Mayor Don Gerard called the agreement "a generationally transformational, amazing thing."

"I'm going to be out there organizing my neighborhood," said Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing.

More than 500 residents in 2012 had already signed up and committed nearly $400,000 toward the expansion as UC2B began gathering cash to entice a private company to build the network out. Those residents offered the cash in return for a promise of future discounts and being among the first connections when that private builder came in.

In the absence of a deal with a private service provider, that money has sat untouched since then. Some residents received refunds, and UC2B officials said they will continue to allow refunds should residents not be happy with the deal. Anyone who has already committed money, however, will still be eligible for the same discounts they were promised from the beginning. However, they will need to reaffirm their interest in the program.

Officials all along asked residents to be patient while they worked out the details of a big deal. UC2B officials say they will communicate with existing customers and those who had committed money so everyone is aware of what's going on and what their options are.

"I didn't think it would take this long," Bowersox-Johnson said. "And I really applaud all the people in the community who have been this patient."

What is iTV-3?

The Internet service provider grew out of the Illinois-based company that owns Family Video, which has 775 movie and game rental stores in 19 states and Canada. It has three stores in Champaign-Urbana.

It began providing fiber-based services in 2009, and in the past few years has launched projects in Pekin, Morton and East Peoria.

UC2B board chairman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson called iTV-3 a "financially strong" partner. Champaign-Urbana will be iTV-3's biggest service area so far and its first with gigabit speeds.

Three other organizations with more local ties expressed interest in working with UC2B, officials say. One did not meet UC2B's qualifications, and the other two said they were not interested in providing service under UC2B's core principles which state the network must be fiber, it must be open to competition and that all residents have the same opportunity to get service.


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DEB wrote on May 29, 2014 at 4:05 pm

Sign me up! I'm ready. Comcast was horrible and expensive. ATT is even worse but less expensive.  And Volo doesn't cover my area.  So yes yes yes. I'm willing to give it a shot. As, I hope, is everyone who is sick and of either the pricing, atrocious customer service, or poor dependability of ATT and Comcast. In an era where the internet is basic to access to education, government, and even basic services (even ignoring entertainment like Hulu, etc.), it is essential that we have fast, reliable, and uncensored  internet. I hope this proides it.

rsp wrote on May 29, 2014 at 5:05 pm

So what about the people who were waiting for uc2b to show up and hook them up but they never came? I'm not talking about the people who paid money to expand the system, I'm talking about those who didn't get hooked up due to incompetence?

pattsi wrote on May 29, 2014 at 5:05 pm

Kodos to those who have worked on this project. There was mention that the new collaboration will further reduce the digital divide. That stated I have not heard any long term plans to reach into the county. No doing so creates a new type of digital divide.

brandonbowersox wrote on May 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm

As a UC2B board member, I know all involved tried their best to hook up everyone who signed up during the grant timeline. If anyone was missed, the good news is that iTV-3 will be able to hook up additional homes in the original UC2B neighborhoods. So you can sign up for service at https://theperfectupgrade.com/

rsp wrote on May 31, 2014 at 10:05 am

If they had contacted my son like they were supposed to to make his appointment it would be $19.99, according to this link it's $49.99. We kept being told to wait. Wait so the price could go up $30 a month? $360 a year?

urbana_resident wrote on May 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm

If you build it, they will come.

Steve Nesbitt wrote on May 30, 2014 at 3:05 pm

I hope that frustration with Comcast's customer service and its regular outages as well as AT&T's limited speeds gets this thing kicked off such that the buildout can proceed...

Squirrel wrote on May 30, 2014 at 9:05 am

Let's see...$31,000,000 divided by 1,100 customers is over $28,000 per customer. Always nice to see how tax dollars are being spent. How many customers are needed to make this expenditure carry itself?

rsp wrote on May 31, 2014 at 10:05 am

Do you do that same kind of math when you use the roads, bridges, etc.? There's the cost of the basic framework, and then there is the cost to plug each person into it. Most of that money was for the framework. Just like the highway system, the water system, the power grid. Think if we had to start any one of those from scratch. What would it cost. And so much of the future is tied into technology, that having high speed fiber will be good for business.

pattsi wrote on May 30, 2014 at 9:05 am

Sharing another over heard comment--"Further speed is great on when and if the deliverers deliver at such high speeds. This is not the case now so we are paying for speeds we will not be using." This is the present situation if one choses the highest speeds offered by Comcast.

cretis16 wrote on May 30, 2014 at 9:05 am

Wow...was this ever expensive....whew! That's a lot of money per signee...Now on to the main point here...How much will it cost me?  How about a sliding scale , someting like if you make over 25K you would pay $ 200 /month? I cant see Family Video as a leader in internet service...as bad as Comcast may be..they got a nice internet service.

Son of a Barrelmaker wrote on May 30, 2014 at 1:05 pm

Didn't some of that $31,000,000 go towards fiber that connects the libraries, schools and cities to each other?

emsed1 wrote on May 30, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Wow, so not only is the NG writing a cotton-candy softball story about this deal, they are letting iTV-3 advertise and recruit customers for free.

We should ask all the folks who had their yards destroyed by UC2B crews and never got service, or the "census blocks" in North Champaign that were used to grab grant money and subsequently leveled how they feel about it.

If you think the largest ISPs in the nation with the biggest infrastructure aren't meeting your needs, just wait until, sorry IF, you experience broadband provided by a video rental chain.  

UC2B has been a fiasco from the start, siphoning tens of millions of local and federal dollars into broken promises.  

As an employee of an ISP I am intimately familiar with the gritty details of providing fiber service from end-to-end.  I'd wager that we won't see Family Video trucks rolling in our neighborhoods by the end of the year, if at all.

If nothing else, I think the NG should put a stop to this free advertising in the comments section.  If Family Video wants to sign up customers they need to do it with paid advertisements.  As a subscriber I don't feel like subsidizing free ads by paying for a newspaper.

cretis16 wrote on May 30, 2014 at 6:05 pm

Family Video has branched off into other markets such as real estate, 24-hour fitness centers, and cable television.] The company also sells new and previously used items online.  With the industry shift from physical cassettes and optical discs to cloud-based libraries and services, Family Video is currently appropriating leasing space at select stores to install their own Marco's Pizza locations. 

OK, so now the pizza delivery guy can install the fiber optic and troubleshoot too....What a professional company.

cgirl wrote on May 30, 2014 at 11:05 pm

Does anyone know if those people who already paid money need to re-sign up with itv3  in order to get on the list, or are we still on the list from a few years ago?

I also wonder because last summer (? I'm bad with times) they installed fiber next to our sidewalk, but our house has never been eligible for UC2B before.

Thanks for your help

pattsi wrote on May 31, 2014 at 5:05 pm

When I looked at the pricing structure, I do not see any accommodation for people with low and fixed incomes. Others have been posting a similar comment via blogs. Does anyone have any answer? If there is no accommodation, then how will the community lower the digital divide for this subpopulation along with those who live i the rural areas?

rsp wrote on June 04, 2014 at 10:06 am

There's no answers for those who signed up but nobody came to connect them either. It's "call now and pay $30 a month extra because we didn't do our jobs". I've had 4 places to send a payment since this started. Now I guess it will be a fifth.