An ambitious government plan to bring souped-up Internet service here is in trouble.
Champaign-Urbana residents have been hearing for several years now about what a big success "Big Broadband" is going to be. But the only thing people know for sure is that, as things stand now, it's a big mess.
Champaign, Urbana and the University of Illinois fell all over themselves three years ago to accept a federal grant aimed at bringing high-speed Internet access to local neighborhoods that were described as underserved. Unfortunately, as the federal grant that finances the work is on the verge of running out, Big Broadband finds itself dramatically short on customers but overflowing with complaints.
The installation process has been so bad that Champaign city officials recently fired the installation firm they hired — Power Up Electrical.
Power Up President Michael Kennedy was undaunted by the dismissal, blaming the city and describing himself as "proud of the job we did."
A big part of the problem, one city officials now acknowledge, is that the Big Broadband is a business, and Champaign economic development manager Teri Legner said "we never, ever envisioned that."
Really, why not? The whole project is predicated on the notion of providing a service, signing up customers to pay the cost of keeping operations afloat and making the necessary installations in a way that promotes consumer confidence.
They say if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck. Big Broadband sure looks like a business — a failing business.
Installation work was sloppy and incomplete. Homeowners' property was damaged. Customers complaints were, if not ignored, largely unaddressed.
We've been skeptical of this process from the beginning, our doubts tempered only by the enthusiasm of supporters who kept assuring the public that Big Broadband is going to be a giant high-step forward. It had better be; a slew of private Internet providers offer solid service at no cost to the taxpayers.
But so far, it's not only not been great, just a great embarrassment — perhaps more evidence when government goes beyond the realm of its limited expertise it does half the job at twice the cost.