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Big plans for Urbana Champaign Big Broadband

A presentation held on Tuesday, July 10 at the University of Illinois’ Research Park featured members from the City Councils of both Urbana and Champaign, faculty from the University of Illinois, and founders of local businesses. The purpose: to describe to community leaders and local media a competition in which Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy have landed.

In responding to a Request for Proposal issued by an economic development corporation, Gigabit Squared, Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband — also known as UC2B — believe this area to be in a perfect position to be successful in the competition if their proposal is well received from the public. There are 37 other communities competing to hold a share in $200 million of funding that Gigabit Squared will give to the six communities showing the most interest in building a new broadband network.

The new network would utilize fiber-optics and advanced infrastructure to deliver an internet speed some studies show can reach up to 100 times faster than standard broadband internet. The new network would be available to each and every neighborhood and business of Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy. The catch, since there always is a catch, is that to have that multi-million dollar grant realized, UC2B needs investors. With a deadline of July 30 set for Gigabit’s competition, leaders of UC2B are asking able residents to pay a $100 minimum pledge fee, $500 consumer installation fee, and a one year contract to be signed with Gigabit Squared after installation, which will run users $360 minimum.

For businesses, the prices change. The pledge rises to $200, installation to $1,000, and service fees increase slightly per-month.

At any rate, UC2B is already gaining momentum. Eleven census blocks in Champaign-Urbana are already poised to connect to a new fiber-optics network by the end of the month thanks to the UC2B project and a prior federal grant. This fact, coupled with the University of Illinois’ renowned engineering department, make Champaign-Urbana an attractive location for a corporation like Gigabit Squared. Mayor of Champaign, Don Gerard, is hoping the attraction is strong enough to make this community a finalist.

“This is such an opportunity,” Mayor Gerard said addressing the audience during the press conference. “We could have our schools, our businesses, our forms of public safety operating on a high-tech, cutting-edge tool.”

The mayor believes the new initiative would eventually lead to business expansion throughout the area. Champaign-Urbana and Savoy have already established themselves as communities that have continued to grow during economic downturn. “We are a model community,” Mayor Gerard said. “We already are a shining beacon of hope on the prairie, and to add this component, the sky is the limit.”

Sanjay Patel, CEO and Founder of Nuvixa, spoke shortly after proving that the mayor’s statement about business expansion would at least hold true for his company.

“At Nuvixa, we are currently working on the next generation of Skype,” Patel began. “Think of a more immersive video chat, one where your friends or family or colleagues are essentially in the same environment. You could be watching a sporting event, for example, with a friend who lives halfway across the country.”

Patel went on to explain that such innovation requires a lot of speed and power on the broadband end. Through the UC2B initiative, developers at Nuvixa would be able to make advances with this current project much quicker. “The benefit of such a connection is what it will bring to recruiting talented engineers, developers, and scientists — things the whole community will benefit from,” Patel said.

Each speaker was introduced by Urbana City Councilman and UC2B Policy Committee member Brandon Bowersox-Johnson. The councilman’s duties also included explaining what will happen if Champaign-Urbana and Savoy are not chosen as one of the six communities by Gigabit Squared.

“If we don’t win, we will try to find another private partner under the same exact terms, pricing, and commitment plan,” Bowersox-Johnson said.

Results of the competition will be released in the fall, with building plans following in the winter if Champaign-Urbana is chosen. “Construction would begin Spring of 2013,” Bowersox-Johnson said, “and everything would be connected four years after.”

The councilman also stated that all prior investing would be completely refunded if the area is not chosen as a winner for the competition. The real risk would come if Champaign-Urbana and Savoy decided to forego an operation like this without the assistance of Gigabit Squared or another similar corporation.

“We are talking in the $50 million range if we were to try and do this on our own,” Bowersox-Johnson said. “We could consider utilizing revenue bonds or other options to build this, but it would be more expensive and a greater risk.”

For interim CIO of the University of Illinois, Paul Hixson, the time is already upon the community for ultra-high-speed internet. “The world’s going digital and the world needs to move fast,” he said. “We need to be agile. My job is to make sure we are using information technology to advance the goals of this university. This is a world-class university that already has a tremendous impact on this community.”

Hixson described the caliber of scholars and faculty that would be drawn to the community after construction of the new network as “unprecedented.” He then added, “We really can’t imagine what a change like this would bring about.”

Education on all levels would be affected by such a change, illustrated by the points made from Champaign Unit 4 School District Chief Technology Officer, David Holman.

“We’re trying to step into the twenty-first century,” Homan began. “This would really help us in the schools as we move forward. At the home and throughout the community we need students to have [internet] access.”

Holman believes that the shift to a more technology-based form of education at the elementary level will only gain speed in the future. “Textbooks are going digital. Assignments are going digital. Students need internet access to succeed.”

Reverend Zernial Bogan, President of Champaign County Black Chamber of Commerce and UC2B board member, added that the new infrastructure would not only help break down the “digital divide” within the communities, but would also “help break the social divide when it comes to jobs and education.”

The conference’s last speaker, John Dimit brought the focus back towards the affect on business. “This allows businesses access at an affordable cost,” said Dimit, the CEO of Champaign County Economic Development Corporation. “It would not only be helpful for technological companies, but distribution companies. Things like shipping and information shared for businesses with multiple locations will benefit. There are companies in this community that need this now.”

Bowersox-Johnson approached the podium one last time to speak of an “expedited fee” option that will allow any resident or business to be first on the list for installation.

Those wishing to pledge can visit or call (217) 366-UC2B.

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