CHAMPAIGN — Officials are still waiting for word on whether Champaign-Urbana will be selected for an expensive high-speed Internet build-out while nearly $400,000 hangs in the balance.
Organizers of Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband, or UC2B, this summer set up a "competition" to persuade a private company named Gigabit Squared to build a fiber-optic network worth tens of millions of dollars throughout the area. It would be an expansion of the existing $31 million fiber optic network that was built primarily with federal and state grants but only reaches a limited number of neighborhoods.
The competition asked residents, businesses owners and landlords to pay, at minimum, $100 up front and potentially $400 later to hook their properties up to the fiber-optic network. They would also have to commit to buying at least one year of Internet service, starting at $30 per month.
More than 514 people signed up, and the nearly $400,000 went into a trust fund while officials sort out their next move. That could take until next spring, said Teri Legner, economic development manager for the city of Champaign and one of the lead organizers of UC2B.
"I hope people hang in there with us," Legner said.
They have yet to hear anything from Gigabit Squared, although the company did announce last month that it would launch a project to build a high-speed Internet infrastructure in nine Chicago neighborhoods using, in part, $2 million in state capital funds.
The total cost of that project will be as high as $9 million, according to a press release from Gov. Pat Quinn's office. That includes a $5 million investment from Gigabit Squared, $1 million from the University of Chicago and another $1 million in private donations.
That's the same kind of "public-private partnership" UC2B officials are looking for to build out Champaign-Urbana's network.
While they wait to hear from Gigabit Squared, organizers are considering other options. If the Gigabit Squared proposal, for whatever reason, does not work out, the nearly $400,000 sitting idle could be used toward one of the alternatives.
"The cities, for their part, did two rounds of an RFI (request for information) seeking proposals from other providers so that we would have many different private providers to consider working with or to choose from on a competitive basis," said Urbana Alderman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, D-Ward 4.
When officials launched the project this summer, a popular criticism of Gigabit Squared's plan to build out the network is that the private company would look to take ownership and, some believed, complete control of the infrastructure it builds.
The RFI was offered as a safety net as government officials launch into negotiations with whoever ends up building the network expansion. Legner said the group received proposals from a handful of other private companies, which would serve as viable alternatives to Gigabit Squared should they enter into negotiations.
But before any of that happens, Legner said, UC2B officials will need to set up their organizational structure. To this point, the decision-makers have been a conglomerate of the Champaign and Urbana city councils and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. They have appointed two subcommittees to deal with the bulk of the details as they have worked through policy and technical issues with the existing UC2B network.
Officials hope that morphing the government structure into a nonprofit organization will streamline the decision-making process.
"We decided that probably needs to happen first before we get into any negotiations with a potential private-public partner," Legner said.
In the meantime, the $400,000 from 514 residents and businesses is not going anywhere.
"I think we will know in the coming months whether a project is materializing or not materializing," Bowersox-Johnson said. "Certainly the city is standing by its pledge to refund all the commitments those people made" if UC2B drops the project.