Decatur is in line to receive a donation that will jump-start the community’s musings over publicly owned Internet infrastructure.
The Howard G. Buffet Foundation recently offered the community several million dollars for a range of public projects, including $330,000 toward expanding the city’s existing fiber-optic network. Decatur deployed a fiber backbone to connect a number of its own facilities in 2014. Earlier this year, city leaders began examining the possibility of expanding the backbone to provide better connectivity to Richland Community College and possibly beyond in the future.
The college is linked to the statewide educational Illinois Century Network (ICN). Like Merit in Michigan, the educational and research network crisscrosses the state, connecting a variety of educational institutions. Increasingly, these state research networks collaborate with local communities to expand publicly owned networks and improve connectivity in places where national providers don't offer the capacity necessary for modern life.
Early estimates of more than $700,000 cooled early enthusiasm for the Decatur project but revised costs estimates now are at approximately $435,000. With the Foundation’s contribution of $330,000 the city would only need to pitch in $105,000.
According to a recent Herald & Review article, a number of local government entities, nonprofits, and healthcare providers have already expressed interest in connecting to the new network as a cost-saving measure. The city also hopes to attract private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) interested in leasing excess capacity to offer retail services in Decatur. Community leaders see the opportunity as a way to improve economic development:
“We can show businesses from outside the community collaboration does exist,” McCrady said. “The broadband access is part of the infrastructure that is important for the community to have in place. We're working in a global economy now more than ever.”
Under the proposal, the city would lease some of its fiber to other users at a cost that could be more than 75 percent less than what is currently paid and offer what is expected to be faster internet service.
“The city will not be the internet provider,” Tyus said. “We think it's good for the community. We want to see people use it and benefit from the discounted rate we're able to obtain.”
Decatur, home to approximately 73,000 people is the county seat of Macon County in the center of the state. Industrial and agricultural processing dominate the economy as the city is home to Archer Daniels Midland and Caterpillar, Inc. As a growing number of farmers and agribusiness rely on high-speed connectivity as a critical component of the industry, Decatur's leadership is also trying to diversify its economy.
The Howard G. Buffet Foundation has also provided funding to Decatur and Macon County to establish a regional economic development corporation. Clearly, the organization understands the value of high-quality connectivity to the region as they work to identify and pursue economic development opportunities.
Once the city council approves the gift and the project begins, the project should be completed by the spring of 2017.