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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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.
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