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Chicago Alderman Advocates Public Fiber For Municipal Savings

At a Chicago City Council meeting this month, a newly elected alderman proposed the city stop relying on incumbent ISPs and start using its existing fiber network for connectivity.

Pointing to nearby cities like Aurora, where municipal government elimnated leased lines to reduce costs by $485,000 per year, Alderman Brian Hopkins suggested the switch could save the city “tens of millions of dollars” annually. He also advocated the change in order to provide more efficient services.

“We already have a robust infrastructure in place to build from. Fiber optic resources currently controlled and managed by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] for traffic, first-responder, and emergency services is an example,” Hopkins said. "Given the debt Chicago faces, we should follow other cities by switching all municipal government broadband access from private incumbent providers to a taxpayer-owned fiber network. The money saved can be reinvested into the expansion of the municipal network to finally reach those communities that need fast affordable access. Why would we not do this?”

Hopkins’s comments come on the heels of a resolution we reported on earlier this year from four powerful Chicago City Council members calling for hearings on how to use city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines for a wireless network that could raise the city millions.

The city is trying to find ways to generate revenue amidst a major $30 billion employee pension crisis that led Moody’s to downgrade the city’s bond rating to junk status in May.

One of the most obvious benefits to local government of self-provisioning is saving taxpayer dollars. In addition to direct savings from allowing municipalities to switch from expensive leased lines, the community at large benefits from ancillary savings. Municipal government, businesses, and residents can save from the need for fewer telephone lines, lower utility costs due to more efficient operations, and even lower rates from incumbents who sense possible competition.

Illinois Munis Partner with Local ISP for Gigabit Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode 160

The southern Illinois cities of Urbana and Champaign joined the University of Illinois in seeking and winning a broadband stimulus award to build an open access urban FTTH network. After connecting some of the most underserved neighborhoods, the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) network looked for a partner to expand the network to the entire community.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we talk with UC2B Board Chair Brandon Bowersox Johnson and the private partner iTV-3's VP and Chief Operating Officer Levi Dinkla. The local firm, iTV-3, already had a strong reputation as an Internet Service Provider as well as operating other lines of business as well.

In our conversation, we talk about iTV-3's commitment to customer service, their expansion plan, and how the network remains open access. Read our continuing coverage of UC2B here. See the neighborhood signups here.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Lessons Learned from Community Outreach in Gilberts, Illinois

Earlier this year, we reported on the Village of Gilberts, Illinois, where voters defeated a measure to approve general obligation bonds for a municipal network project. Our story got the attention of Bill Beith, Assistant Village Administrator from Gilberts who contacted us to talk about the project and provide detail on their efforts to educate the voters prior to the election.

The project would have raised property taxes 1.8 percent or approximately $150 per year on a property with a $250,000 market value. Even though the network would have been a publicly owned asset, Beith believes the idea of any new taxes defeated the measure. As the community considered the project, voters stated repeatedly that Comcast or one of the other incumbents should pay for deployment of infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Village had approached incumbents who had no interest in building in Gilberts. They felt the investment would not pay off in a community that is home to about 6,800 people.

The proposed project was to be deployed along side a private fiber network. When the developer of a new housing development learned that fiber significantly increases the value of real estate, he chose to include it to each new home. He also chose to bring the network to a nearby school along with several public safety and municipal facilities at no charge to the Village. 

The project on which voters denied funding would have extended fiber to the rest of the community. According to Beith, the developer still plans to continue his fiber build in an incremental fashion. In addition to the homes in the new housing development, he will focus on commercial connectivity in the Village of Gilberts.

Even though the measure failed in April, the Village will continue to explore ways to work with the developer. According to Beith, he and other advocates for improving connectivity in Gilberts walked away with some valuable lessons for the future.

Ultimately, timing played an important role. Because referendum rules precluded the Village from advocating a position on the project, Beith felt their ability to share the potential benefits was compromised. If the Village needs to ask a similar question to the voters in the future, they will begin educating the public long before the referendum question is determined.

Beith also believes that the citizen Facebook page could have played a more instrumental role if it had been developed earlier. He found that it became a place for online debate and felt that, if it had been up and running earlier, advocates could have used the forum as a way to address arguments or misinformation early in the process.

The Village created and Beith believes that branding the idea of the network was a good way to introduce the initiative to the public. They also posted some basic videos to provide basic information on connectivity. If they had offered videos earlier in the process, the Village could have presented a waider range of material. Beith noted that they were also restricted in what links the the Village could provide and could only offer factual resources that did not advocate for or against the project.

According to Beith, the Village held an open house where they provided live demonstrations of 300 Mbps Internet access via fiber, a pair of 4K big screen TVs and eight assorted devices streaming simultaneously. Approximately 50 or 60 people attended the open house but Bill described the atmosphere as skeptical. It is his belief that the people attending the open house were undecided while those that stayed away had already determined how they would vote.

The Village of Gilberts must wait two years until this issue can be presented to the voters again. Beith is hopeful that by that time word will spread that access to fiber is unsurpassed and demand will grow. Many things can happen in two years and, as we have seen in other communities, it often takes several attempts for referendums to pass.

Chicago Aldermen Want to Explore Fiber Potential

Chicago is moving in the direction of using municipal fiber to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. According to the Chicago Sun Times, three Aldermen and the Vice Mayor recently introduced a Resolution calling for hearings on ways to use existing fiber assets for personal and commercial use. Text of Resolution R2015-338 [PDF] is now available online.

The City has flirted with a greater vision for its publicly owned infrastructure in the past, including Wi-Fi and fiber. In February 2014, the community released a Request for Qualifications for Broadband Infrastructure [PDF].

This time the City plans to collect information and educate leadership with hearings on ways to utilize the fiber that grace Chicago's underground freight tunnels. They also want to explore city-owned light poles and government rooftops as potential locations for wireless network equipment. From the article:

“These hearings would be a fact-finding mission to help the City Council fully understand the size and scope of Chicago’s fiber-optic infrastructure and explore how it could be shared or expanded to raise revenue for city coffers while making our city more competitive,” [Finance Committee Chairman Edward] Burke said in a press release.

Burke was joined by Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis, Economic Capital, Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney, and Vice Mayor Marge Laurino.

R2015-338 lists many of the communities we have researched as examples to follow, including Chattanooga, Wilson, Lafayette, and Scott County in Minnesota. In addition to exclusively municipal projects, the Resolution acknowledges partnerships between public entities and private organizations, regional projects, and statewide efforts. Clearly, Chicago is open to a variety of possibilities.

While creating more options for businesses and residents is a primary motivator, the City Council is also considering the potential for revenue:

“A Chicago broadband network would be an asset that could be monetized. During these challenging economic times, we need to examine all options to help balance the budget,” Tunney said in the release.

It is true that municipal networks often generate revenue in the long term. It is also true that they share one characteristic with private networks: it can take a significant number of years to reach that stage.

Locals Celebrate iTV-3 and UC2B Expansion in Champaign-Urbana

The expansion in Champaign-Urbana has begun! On May 8th, iTV-3 held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the start of its plan to bring fiber to the homes of neighborhoods that sign up for service. reported on the event with the video below.

An April press release announced the celebration that kicked off efforts to meet iTV-3's ultimate goal:

This will enable iTV-3 to expand the network and provide Gigabit service to more than 250,000 homes including 45,000 households and businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area. 

The company has promised to expand to neighborhoods where they achieve a 50 percent commitment. 

Earlier this year, the ISP increased speeds for free in order to offer service that meets the minimum speeds as revised by the FCC. The lowest tier available from iTV-3 via the UC2B network is now 30 Mbps. All speeds are symmetrical.

The UC2B partnership with iTV-3 has been heralded by public leaders. UC2B's private sector partner, iTV-3 is an Illinois company with a track record of business decisions that support local communities. Their agreement is structured in such a way that will protect the UC2B nonprofit and subscribers in the future. At the event, a representative from iTV-3 briefly described the company's approach to the communities it serves:

"We own and operate the Family Video stores nationwide as well, and for us, we've always enjoyed being part of the community and this in and of itself is a community wide effort," said Trevor Rice, who is the marketing director for iTV-3. "Without the community's involvement, we're not going to be able to expand." 


Lincoln, Illinois, Once Again Looking at Fiber

Lincoln, Illinois, has contemplated investing in a fiber-optic municipal network since 2009 and, while they have not taken steps to deploy yet, the community appears to be ready to dive in. The Lincoln Courier reports that the City Council recently considered investing $100,000 to deploy fiber in the downtown business district.

Lincoln, located right in the center of the state, is home to approximately 14,500 people. At the meeting, City Administrator Clay Johnson described the need as essential for economic development:

"Fiber optics are the sewer and water for economic development; what businesses look for when they want to locate in your area or expand in your are is, ‘do they have access to high speed internet’ and in a lot of areas, no they don’t."

Johnson believes that existing fiber from local Lincoln College could be integrated into a network that would eventually lead to better access to businesses and as backhaul for downtown Wi-Fi. His "extremely preliminary" estimate is $140,000 - $160,000 for a fiber connection from the college down one of the main commercial corridors.

He also suggested that a long-term plan would include connectivity for local schools as a cost-saving measure.

In 2009, former Mayor Keith Snyder's administration embraced the idea of investing in municipal fiber infrastructure as part of a downtown revitalization plan. In 2012 the community received a $600,000 grant of which $16,500 was dedicated to develop an initial plan for a network. City leaders ultimately decided to direct remaining funds toward other projects in 2012 and the City Council is once again taking up the possibility of fiber.

Gilberts Voters Say No to Tax Increase for Muni

On April 7th, voters in Glberts, Illinois, chose not to raise taxes to deploy a municipal fiber network, reports the Daily Herald. According to the article, 81 percent of ballots cast voted against the proposal. Voter turnout was low, with only 682 ballots cast out of 4,002 registered voters in town.

As we reported last month, local developer Troy Mertz plans to deploy fiber to each structure in a new housing development, The Conservancy. His fiber company will also install fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. The plan was to issue General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance a publicly owned network throughout the rest of the community. The proposal would have raised taxes approximately 1.8 percent or $150 per year on properties with a market value of $250,000.

For the developer the plan will remain the same:

Mertz still plans to go ahead and connect The Conservancy's planned fiber optic network to municipal and public safety buildings plus Gilberts Elementary School, saying it was built into his development plans.

"The goal of village was always to getting fiber to our industrial areas," said Gilberts Village President Rick Zirk. "As a community, we asked the rest of the village, 'Do you want the same service and the same options that the new part of town and the industrial park?' And it seems that they don't want to pay for it."

There is a definite lesson here for any other communities considering a similar plan - educate the voters and make sure they are excited about it! From what we can tell, there was little effort to make people aware of the plan and the turnout for the vote suggests that no one was particularly excited to make it happen.

Small Illinois Town Will Vote On Fiber Investment in April

The Village of Gilberts, Illinois, will ask voters in April to authorize up to $5 million in General Obligation bonds to deploy a FTTH network reports the Daily Herald. GO bonds are rarely used for network deployment but often used for public works projects and other publicly owned assets. Due to the funding mechanism in Gilberts, the network would be publicly owned.

"It's something that is not readily available in other communities," Village Administrator Ray Keller said. "It would set us apart and put us on a path to better meet the needs of our residents and businesses as their demands and needs for technology grows."

The community, home to 6,800 people, has experienced rapid population growth since 2000. At that time only 1,200 people lived in this northeast Kane County village.

According to the article and January Board of Trustee minutes [PDF online], the bond issue would increase property taxes 1.8 percent on most tax bills. Properties with a market value of $250,000, which is most common in Gilberts, would pay an additional $150 per year or $12.50 per month to fund the infrastructure deployment. There are approximately 2,400 taxable properties in Gilbert today but as more properties are built, each property owner's share would decrease. 

This is the second time the village has planned for a fiber network to improve connectivity throughout the community. In 2013, Gilberts entered into an agreement with i3, a British company that eventually folded, to deploy fiber using sewers as conduit. In that plan, i3 would have owned the fiber network.

Developer Troy Mertz is spearheading the project. His company is investing in a new housing development that will eventually include an additional 985 new homes. As part of that development and independent of the municipal fiber project, Mertz is installing fiber to each structure at his own expense. His company, iFiber Networks will also run fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. According to the Daily Herald, iFiber is not charging the city for bringing fiber to its facilities or the school.

Mertz said it's hard to quantify how much additional money he's spending on granting access to village buildings and the elementary school, but it's something he's doing because it will benefit everyone, he said.

"It's a mutual success type of thing," he said. "I hope that by bringing these services into the village, it benefits not just my community but the community as a whole."

The housing development, called The Conservancy, was originally conceived prior to 2007 but the original developer filed for bankruptcy before the project could get off the ground. There is already some street infrastructure in place and the proximity to the elementary school makes the location attractive, says Mertz. Adding fiber to the new homes will make them more attractive and, according to a 2014 FTTH Council study, increases the value of propoerties up to $5,000.

In order to reduce the cost of the deployment, the Gilberts network will piggyback the iFiber network along the iFiber route.

Using GO Bonds will keep the interest rate down because the community pledges its full faith and credit to pay back the investors, resulting in very little risk. A benefit of tying the bonds to property taxes is that the investment increases the property value. Thus, if a homeowner moves out of town, the cost of paying back the bonds stick with the property that was improved with the network, not the homeowner him or herself. 

On the other hand, incumbent cable companies will often argue that this allows local governments to borrow at lower cost than the private sector providers can. Whether or not this is even true is hard to say give the incredible cash flow of these de facto monopolies that raise prices on an annual basis. Additionally, the benefits of having built the original cable networks as part of a government sanctioned monopoly are hard to quantify, so there is little reason to suggest that using GO bonds is actually unfair when compared to the many advantages of entrenched incumbent providers.

The referendum is set for April 7th.

iTV-3 Increases Speeds for Free on UC2B Network

As the FCC works to update current policy to encourage ubiquitous Internet access and adoption, community networks are also taking an active role. Earlier this month, customers of iTV-3 received a boost in speed with no increase in price. iTV-3, a community minded local provider, chose to make the change in order to ensure all its customers were well within the new broadband speeds as redefined by the FCC in January 2015.

Early last year, UC2B and iTV-3 announced their new partnership. The company, which has provided services to residents and businesses to Illinois communities since 2009, is leasing UC2B infrastructure and equipment and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of expansion. 

iTV-3 increased customers' speeds by 10 Mbps, according to a press release on the change:

20/20 Mbps increased to 30/30 Mbps

40/40 Mbps increased to 50/50 Mbps

50/50 Mbps increased to 60/60 Mbps 

“We are increasing the speed tier of all existing Champaign and Urbana iTV-3 customers by 10 Mbps at no additional charge to ensure that every user will exceed the new FCC definition of broadband speed,” said Dinkla. “New areas will be constructed beginning this Spring, bringing gigabit Internet speeds to businesses and neighborhoods throughout the community.  iTV-3 gigabit Internet is yet another reason for people to be excited to live, work, and do business in Champaign and Urbana.”

UC2B has been lauded by the FCC as a model for public private partnerships. The last-mile project, received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to bring fiber connectivity to urban homes in the Urbana Champaign area. It was deployed by the not-for profit corporation aimed at bringing high-speed service to residents in economically disadvantaged areas along with a number of community anchor institutions. Over the past year, iTV-3 has continued to expand and now also offers services in Peoria, in addition to its Dunlap and Tremont markets.

Local Voices Show Support for Local Connectivity Options

Our readers have heard the media murmur around municipal networks steadily grow to a loud hum during the past year. An increasing number of local press outlets have taken the opportunity to express their support for municipal networks in recent months.

In communities across the U.S. letters to the editor or editorial board opinions reflected the hightened awareness that local decisionmaking is the best answer. Support is not defined by political inclination, geography, or urbanization.

Last fall, several Colorado communities asked voters to decide whether or not to reclaim local telecommunications authority hijacked by the state legislature and Qwest (now CenturyLink) lobbyists in 2005. Opinion pieces from local political and business leaders in the Denver Post and the Boulder Daily Camera encouraged voters to support the measures. Downtown Boulder Inc. and the Boulder Chamber wrote:

Clearly a transparent public process is appropriate for identifying the best path to higher-speed infrastructure. One thing is certain. Approving the exemption to State Law 152 is a step in the right direction.

Expensive service, poor quality connections, and limited access often inspire local voices to find their way to the news. Recently, City Council Member Michael Wojcik from Rochester, Minnesota, advocated for a municipal network for local businesses and residents. His letter appeared in the

If we want to control our broadband future, we need to join successful communities such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Lafayette, La., and create a municipal fiber network. In many cities around the world, residents get 1 gigabyte, bidirectional Internet speeds for less than $40 per month. In Rochester, I get 1 percent of those speeds for $55 per month. I believe if Bucharest, Romania, can figure this out, Rochester can as well.

Last summer, Austin Daily Herald reporter Laura Helle wrote in support of the Minnesota community's proposed Gig Austin project. She acknowledged that there were those in the community who considered their Internet access "fine" but "fine" would not sufficiently encourage growth and economic development.

In May, the Olympian Editorial Board suggested several communities in Washington open up municipal fiber networks for consumer use.

Some editorials or letters we see support specific projects. Connecticut community media outlets are also voicing support for a statewide initiative commenced last fall. Hartford Business published an opinion piece from State Senator Beth Bye and Consumer Counsel Ellin Katz on the need for better connectivity in the state. They then followed up with an editorial supporting the plan:

To be frank, investing in high-speed Internet infrastructure hasn't been an issue high on our priority list, but when you look at the statistics and the economic implications, it is something state policymakers and the business community should look at seriously.

A number of communities have expressed interest in joining the Connecticut effort and journalists and editors in communities like Wallingford have published pieces encouraging their local leaders to participate.

Bill Nemitz, writing for the Portland Press Herald, and Stephen Betts at the Bangor Daily News highlighted the promise of municipal networks in Maine. Nemitz believes Maine should consider a network similar to Massachusetts' WiredWest or take a closer look at Leverett. The Daily News touted Rockport's investment as a locally driven initiative:

As Rockport lights its fiber, many other towns across Maine contemplate the economic and quality of life benefits fiber promises. The network wouldn’t have moved forward without the support of businesses and institutions, as well as local taxpayers, who believed in the value of fiber. Private investment and revenue from the town’s Tax Increment Financing account funded the project.

Reading Newspaper NYC

The Daily News writes fondly of Rockport's local self-reliant approach: "...towns across the state would do well to take notice of Rockport's example."

In communities where projects have been considered, local media has felt compelled to express to their support. In Roanoke County, Virginia, a project has been debated for over a year. In July the Roanoke Times Editorial Board published "Our view: Strike up the broadband" in support of the project.

Recently, we reported on a collaborative project in McHenry County, Illinois involving the county, a nearby community college, a school district, and the city. In December, the Northwest Herald supported the project with an editorial, citing taxpayer savings and potential economic development.

Economic development is often cited as one of the most important reasons local citizens, leaders, and editorial boards support local initiatives. The Editorial Board of ended 2014 with strong support of a proposed plan to develop a fiber optic network to attract business:

We urge city leaders move ahead with all deliberate speed on our own "Gig City" project, and all the local governments and business support organizations in our region to work in partnership to create a new atmosphere of excitement for entrepreneurism.

Such jobs, created handful by handful in small companies with large potential, will boost our Rocket City to new levels of success.

We also came across an editorial encapsulating the process and the success of local connectivity in The Dalles, Oregon. The network paid off its debt ahead of schedule. The Dalles Chronicle covered the story, highlighting the benefits of the network but also providing a brief history of the tumultuous history behind the decision to invest in a network. Ultimately, the community's success was the realization of their vision which is now their fiber optic network asset, QLife. From the editorial:

Their vision has been validated over and over in the subsequent years.

QLife isn’t the only benefit that has come from a community-wide vision.

Every community needs visionaries to help shape its future and The Dalles one has reaped benefits from visionaries as it has materially transformed itself over the decades.

But every community also needs hard-headed pragmatists to question the need, analyze the plan and help make sure any vision stands up under public scrutiny.

Only through this crucible of diverging perspectives does truly sound public policy emerge.

QLife is a testiment to effectiveness of that crucible.

Beleve it or not, these are only a few of the letters to the editor and editorials we see on a regular basis in support of local telecommunications authority, specific municipal projects under consideration, or from a public that knows local connectivity needs a boost from the community.

If your community suffers from poor connecivity for residents, business, or public institutions, you should consider the possibilty of a community network initiative. Writing editorials and letters to the editor in local media is a good way to find like minded citizens and bring attention to the issue.

For more on starting a community network initiative in your community, check out our Community Network Toolkit or many of our other resources.

Photo of the newspaper stack courtesy of Globalimmigrantnews through Wikimedia Commons. Photo of the newspaper reader courtesy of c_pichler through Wikimedia Commons