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UC2B in transition

Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) is a much debated public project that sought optimistically to bring internet fiber lines to houses and businesses across the Urbana-Champaign area. It caught fire, then went cold, and for a number of months the UC2B website has provided the smallest of details about progress towards its goals.

This is the second in a three-part series (find part one here) of articles about the origins, current state, and future direction on UC2B.

UC2B in transition, with Brandon Bowersox-Johnson

If the origins of UC2B are as clear as crystal, the current state of UC2B is more like muddy water. Part of that is due to non-disclosure agreements, part of that due to the lack of timetable for when things should get done. But overall UC2B in its current state symbolizes transition — an ever-shifting ground of changes, small and large, that have overcome the organization since August 10th, 2013.

What happened on August 10th, 2013?

That day, the UC2B published an article on its website titled “Update on Nonprofit Status, Expansion, and the Future of UC2B.” It detailed the changes that would beset the organization in the coming months, along with its vision for providing service to the Champaign-Urbana area.

And it’s that change from an Intergovernmental Consortium to a not-for-profit organization that seems to occupy UC2B most in the months that followed.

UC2B: From Intergovernmental Consortium to Not-For-Profit Organization

It went without saying that there were a lot of stakeholders involved during the creation and early beginnings of UC2B. There were the two city councils — Urbana and Champaign — the University of Illinois, a Policy Committee, a Technical Advisory Committee, among others.

For the formation of UC2B, this was necessary, but sometime after the formation of UC2B and after construction had started, talks had already begun about what to with UC2B after the requirements for the federal grant had been completed.

Some had misgivings about passing the reins to a completely autonomous organization for fears that UC2B would eventually be sold and operated by a for-profit private entity, a company perhaps with little interest in the welfare of C-U as a whole.

On August 5th, 2013, five days before the UC2B’s article, the Urbana City Council approved an ordinance that would allow for the formation of a private not-for-profit organization to run UC2B, including its day-to-day operations, billing, and so forth, an ordinance that would establish also a Board of Directors for the new not-for-profit.

The Board of Directors would have nine members total, three each selected by the “Founding Entities” of UC2B — the governments of Champaign and Urbana and the University of Illinois.

The document was debated, altered slightly, then voted upon the following day in the Champaign City Council meeting. It was approved, and the change from a government-run organization to a private not-for-profit was set in motion.

It was the option that fit the need of the community the most, said Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, Chair of the UC2B Not-For-Profit Board of Directors.

“The cities all supported a business and strategic plan that was approved in 2012,” Brandon said. “The business and strategic plan weighed a lot of different structural options for the network and decided the not-for-profit structure would fit the needs of our community the most.”

The original document voted on by the Urbana City Council stipulated a process and timeline of transferring assets to the new not-for-profit, from August through the end of September. The actual process has turned out to take much longer.

Handing Over the Reins, with Red Tape and Paperwork

The original document voted on by the Urbana City Council stipulated a process and timeline of transferring assets that had a start date and optimistic end date. Turns out, nothing in government moves quickly.

“[The formation of the not-for-profit] is still in progress,” Brandon said.

And the culprit seems to be the sheer amount of paperwork needed to transfer assets. At the beginning of the not-for-profit, the organization didn’t have the capability or tools needed to operate on its own. All of that had to be built from the ground up.

It’s trying to be an independent organization that has given the UC2B trouble.

“For us the not-for-profit status has not been the challenge,” Brandon said. “It’s been the independence of running the organization, having our own bank account, having our own staff, own office space… it’s about trying to get on your own two feet.”

That’s the recurring theme about UC2B: Independence as an organization isn’t easy.

“The actual digging in the ground and plugging people in has been complete,” Brandon said. “But there is still a huge amount of paperwork to wrap this up. Now that all the locations are plugged in together, we’re still getting IOU’s IRU’s executed, closing the books, and closing all the federal grant reporting.”

As of now, UC2B has approximately 1100 customers, mostly households but some institutions as well. Some of the newly hooked up customers have never had internet before, and some others just wanted a faster, cheaper option than Comcast or other internet companies.

They’ve hooked up the schools, the libraries, the fire stations, and other public institutions as well. Some of the major companies have bought into UC2B because it takes their service into the digital age. MTD for instance uses UC2B fiber optics to install security cameras and digital kiosks at bus stops.

It works like this, according to Brandon: “A lot of the governmental entities get a certain number of strands for a one time purchase fee and then a yearly maintenance fee. They get those strands of fiber optic cable, plug in their own equipment, and use those strands of fiber optic cable to bounce to any location in CU that they need to.”

But there’s still work to be done.

Organizational Structure and Opening the Books

Progress, while slow, has occurred. Even recently, the billing system for UC2B customers was transferred over from the City of Urbana to UC2B. According to Brandon, UC2B staff works “every day” to close the paperwork out and transition from one bookkeeping system to the other.

But notifications of progress are scant and updates to the website are few and far between. That may be due to UC2B’s small staff size, which as of this moment includes a nine-member Board of Directors, a day-to-day operations manager, and a few people to provide customer service to existing UC2B customers.

It’s not many people to handle the workload of a broadband network spanning the entire community.

For now, though, that’s what it’ll be. If there’s a concern on the horizon, it’s that with UC2B’s current customer base and monthly subscriptions, its just almost breaking even but Brandon is looking into the future with UC2B’s three core values as a guiding tool.

They are:

  1. The network must be fiber, not alternative technologies, offering high speeds.
  2. There must be open access to enable fair and open competition forever.
  3. The network must be built to all members of the community, with no redlining.

What will UC2B look like in the future? Stay tuned for the next article.

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