Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Carol Ammons on the UC2B network in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. Listen to this episode here.
Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, a production of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez.
In this episode, we take you to Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. The community is engaged in the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband Network, also known as UC2B. Christopher visits with Carol Ammons. She's the Director of Operations for the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center. He also visits with Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, who's on the Policy Committee for the UC2B project. Chris and his guests discuss the way this open access network has brought affordable connectivity to sections of the community left behind in the past. They also discuss how the Independent Media Center works to help get more people online and help those people make full use of this community resource. Now to Chris, Carol, and Brandon.
Chris Mitchell: Thank you for joining me for another edition of Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Today, I'm speaking with Carol Ammons, the Operations Director for Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, who's on the Policy Committee for the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband project. Thank you for joining me.
Carol Ammons: Thank you for having us.
Brandon Bowersox-Johnson: Yeah. Thanks.
Chris: Can you start by describing the community a little bit, for those who have not been there and are not familiar with it?
Brandon: Yeah. Urbana-Champaign is a mid-sized city here in central Illinois, a couple hours south of Chicago. And it's a great microcosm of the world. It's an incredibly diverse city, with a university community, generations of people that have been here. The total population is -- in Champaign and Urbana -- about 120,000 people. And then some more folks out in Champaign County as well.
Chris: It's a university town primarily. Is that right?
Brandon: Yeah. Often, we call it a micro-urban community, because it has a very urban feel. There's a lot of art, a lot of culture, a lot of amenities that you might only find in bigger cities. But we're a small-sized city, with the University of Illinois here at the center. And a lot of community, a lot of heart and soul, here in the Midwest.
Chris: Terrific. I always love to hear that -- as a fellow Midwesterner. So, can you step back in history, a little bit, maybe, and tell us how you came to be organizing for a better network?
Brandon: The community here has had a long history of working for better broadband, and bridging the digital divide. There have been generations of projects in this community, to try to get people connected, get people training, equipment, and better connectivity. And a few of the projects that are really noteworthy, there was a project here. The thing that has now become called Commotion, at the Open Technology Institute started with a test bed here. So that was an urban Wi-Fi mesh project, to get urban neighborhoods connected, and a downtown connected. And that was -- that test bed was years ago, with kind of a previous iteration of what is now Commotion.
This town also had a project called Prairienet that was one of the very first community networks, back when there was dial-in. And so, Prairienet offered free and affordable dial-in service for people from home, or from community organizations. And then started offering web-hosting to nonprofits and community organizations, right at the beginning of that movement, in -- you know, in the '90s, when dial-in was the way people connected.
And here at the Independent Media Center, where Carol works, I'll let her tell the story. But it's also been a hub of media literacy, of people connecting, and getting plugged into their community.
Carol: Yeah. The greatest part about the Independent Media Center, as Brandon just described -- We were the center of community connectivity in downtown Urbana. Back in the early '90s, these little projects started with volunteers, who wanted to come and provide a free and affordable access point for Internet service. As well as the Independent Media Center hosted hundreds of people's websites for them, on our server, here at the Independent Media Center. So, we've always been trying to bridge the digital divide -- before broadband actually came about.
Chris: We just did a discussion last week with Sascha Meinrath, the -- with the Commotion Project. I think it was called CUWIN when it was in Urbana, wasn't it?
Carol: That's correct.
Chris: OK. So, people who are interested in that can check out last week's show. And, Carol, when people talk about the Independent Media Center, I don't think the average person maybe understands all the things that you do. Can you tell us a little background of what kind of media you produce, and what kind of -- how many people use the center? That sort of thing?
Carol: Yes. We produce -- we have a newspaper, called the Public i, that we produce out of the Independent Media Center. It is -- all of our projects are volunteer-run and -operated. We also have a radio station, WRFU, which -- we just raised a new 110-foot tower, here in downtown Urbana. It's a beautiful center where people can come and also get free public access on our public-access computers, as well as a full computer lab. We have other projects that are ancillary, projects that support local services like our Books to Prisoners project, which supports all of our state, federal, and local prison population with literacy books. That project has served and sent out over 80,000 books this year to date. We also have a bike project that is a partner 501(c)(3) here in our building. Fiscally sponsored up to a year ago. That project has two sites, one in our building and one on the campus of the University of Illinois. We have partnerships with other businesses that are in our community, in our building. The UP Center, who really works hard, and the United Pride Center, is located here in the Independent Media Center. And they work on advocacy work for the GLBT community as well as youth. I can go on. We have a computer tech center in our building that also helps people who need actual tech support. We don't charge for any of these services. They're completely free. And people can come into our computer helpdesk and get help with their computers, to bring them back online, or show them how to do something. We also have a maker space here in the building, that provides outreach to community, to introduce technology to children, elders, and people who are generally interested. So, we have a lot of resources right here in the building. Every year, we probably host a good -- I'd say about 30,000 people come through our center for one of those projects, or a number of other community-sponsored projects that are hosted in our venue here. So we have a lot of things going on all the time.
Chris: That's really incredible. And I assume that that was -- that really formed the foundation of the organizing effort to start building the network -- the UC2B network -- that has resulted out of the stimulus program. So, maybe, Brandon, do you want to take us through how UC2B came into existence?
Brandon: As we were saying, this town has a history of work on digital literacy, and digital divide, and getting people connected, and all kinds of programs like those, here at the Independent Media Center. And -- as well as churches, barbershops, places all over the community that were public access sites and where Prairienet and other local groups were placing computers and doing training in the community. And the limiting factor of that was connectivity. We were in a situation where our incumbent providers were not building out the fastest connectivity to all our neighborhoods. And I have been a City Council member here the past eight years, and saw that we weren't able to convince the monopoly cable or monopoly phone provider here to really bring our community faster connectivity, or make sure that that was universal access for everybody. So, when the opportunity came to build a fiber network, which had been discussed since the 1990s -- But when the opportunity for stimulus funding came, the whole community rallied together, with the help of groups like the IMC and others, that all pulled together, had working sessions and community dialogue, to build the kind of coalition that it took to win funding, and to connect, now, almost 200 anchor organizations, just like the IMC, all over. We're talking about the boys and girls clubs. We're talking about the homeless shelters. We're talking about senior housing facilities. As well as more traditional anchors, like public schools, libraries, and fire stations.
Chris: That was essential, right? Because you are one of very few awards that are doing fiber-to-the-home, or any sort of last-mile connectivity, in an urban environment. Is that right?
Brandon: Yeah. We were awarded in Round One, and we were -- we're kind of a unique project. In the BTOP ecosystem, we're one of the few projects that is doing urban fiber-to-the-home. And so, we're not only connecting those almost 200 anchor organizations -- and the Independent Media Center is one of them -- with symmetric fiber to their building connection. But we're also doing fiber-to-the-home, in eligible, underserved neighborhoods. We proved that they were underserved by the incumbent providers. And so we won funding, so that people in those neighborhoods could get fiber to their home, even to their trailer, or to their apartment unit -- fiber into each unit -- in those eligible census tracts.
Chris: One of the things that I'm curious about -- We -- on this show, we often talk about how we're getting access out. But, Carol, with you on the call, we have a great opportunity to ask, what are you going to be able to do, with the Independent Media Center, with this new connectivity?
Carol: We've just gotten on board, as far as our access inside of our building. We just got hooked up with our -- direct to our computers. It was about two weeks ago. So, right now, we have a volunteer that's setting up actual instructional classes in our computer lab that will allow people -- We have a lab of -- we have about 12 computers that people can come inside the Independent Media Center and use. We also have a 50-inch screen -- instructional monitor -- that we've also hooked up as a result of that UC2B connection, so that we can have instructional classes to teach people how to use some of the basic resources. So, we hope to offer classes to senior citizens, which -- we're working on a project right now, so that they can learn how to Skype, and see their relatives and families, that live all over the country. Many of them don't know how to use the technology, or even just the basic softwares that are accessible by Internet. So we're going to actually offer them right inside of the Independent Media Center. We're also working on a project for recent migrants to our community, who also don't have the resources to be able to connect with their families back in their home countries. We're going to actually offer that here in the Independent Media Center. So, I think that the faster broadband has allowed us to up our game, so to speak, so that we could offer to the community a faster connectivity access point, so that they could utilize Skype in a way that they've not been able to do in their own communities. They don't have the technology. We also have started a -- with, again, community partners, like our Parkland College. And Volo, which is a local company we partner with, so that we can do a digital divide project that allow our tech volunteers to rehab computers, in our facility, and offer then to low-income residents, at considerably low cost -- about $50 to $100, they can come here, learn how to use a computer, take that computer for a small donation, and go home and hook up to that broadband that's been available in their home areas.
Brandon: As Carol had mentioned, there's a low-power radio station, WRFU, here on-site with the tower. Except even with the new, taller tower, it does not quite reach every neighborhood of our urban area. And so, WRFU has wanted to stream online, but with their old connection, that was limited to something like 1.5 megabits upload. They just were not able to stream their signal to many members of the community. And now, the fiber optic connection here is 40 megabits upload. And that means that they're able to broadcast more online streams, and really serve with the radio station the parts of the community that could not reach the broadcast signal.
Another great example is, the community web-hosting piece was just kind of maxed out, because they couldn't get a fast enough data pipe out of this building from existing providers. And now, with the new fiber to their building connection, can do more community web hosting, and let people come onto that service again. So, it's all these things that have been possible with fiber. And, on top of that, the fiber optic connection has saved money. So now, for 40 megabits upload and download symmetric fiber. Which is a great connection. I wish I had that at my home.
Chris: You're not the only one.
Brandon: Yeah. For 40 megabits, the IMC is paying $39.99 a month.
Carol: And I can definitely speak to the $39.99 a month. As operations, we spend quite a bit -- or, we were spending quite a bit. As a matter of fact, I got the go last week to disconnect our current provider, which is great. So we can disconnect, save that money, and then be able to offer all these services to the community. But I can also speak from a home user. Because I live -- I'm lucky to live near our major hospital. And that major hospital area is located in one of the census tracts. And so, our home was fiber optic connected. And we are a client of UC2B. And so we have, again, faster Internet service in our home for $19 a month. Which is considerably lower than what I was paying to the local provider. So we did get faster service. We got better access points. And we got a cheaper rate. And I don't think you can beat that anywhere.
Brandon: Yeah. That $20 a month plan is 20 megabits symmetric connection. And it's the kind of thing you can Skype, you can do movies, or you can coordinate with your family, or you can produce media files and upload them -- that's all possible only with this kind of next-generation fiber and symmetric sort of technologies, that just weren't available before.
Chris: Well, I think we're at a little bit of risk of making people too jealous of this UC2B network, Brandon. But, Brandon, maybe you can tell us about the "open access," in that, not only is this network offering these incredible deals, and connecting people who previously did not either have a connection or did not have an affordable connection, they're also going to have a choice of service providers. Walk us through the open access provisions.
Brandon: Yeah, so part of -- because we accepted dollars from the ARRA Recovery Act funds, the network is required to be open. And that means that citizens will have the choice of signing up with any other private provider that comes along and says, you know what, I also want to be a service provider on this network, and have access to these fiber optic lines. So, because we're an open network, as we finish construction here, we will begin signing up private-sector providers -- who all have a right to step forward and say that they want to be a service provider on this network as well. So, hopefully, the long-term solution is that this brings our community more choice, and more competition, which will drive up the quality of service, whether that's the speeds, or the customer service, or the packages that are offered and available for citizens to choose from, while driving down costs. Because there's finally going to be true competition here in our telecom sector, in Urbana-Champaign.
Chris: Can I ask you if there's anything else that we should know about the network?
Brandon: I would say, the -- you know, the success here has been -- really broad coalitions, like those between community groups, like the Independent Media Center, that are working at the grassroots level, and government, like our city of Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Illinois -- that all formed the partnership to apply for these funds. And our state of Illinois, and our visionary governor, who also committed matching funds to make the project happen. So, it was so many leaders, at every level, from the grassroots to our community organizations to our state, that all are working together, with all these anchors throughout our community, to make this possible. And it really wouldn't be, but for this broad coalition, that we were able to make such a difference for the community.
Chris: And I should also say that I would have loved to have had Mike Smeltzer on the call. He's been reminding me, in the past, of what a great network you've done. And we, unfortunately, couldn't tie him in, just to -- due to logistics on my end. But I think we will have another call, to talk a little bit more in depth about some of the real interesting nuts-and-bolts kinds of things you're doing on the network, that's a little bit different. So, I didn't want to just ignore his contribution either.
Brandon: Absolutely! Mike Smeltzer was one of those people who had a vision and pulled this whole coalition together, and said we ARE going to apply for these funds. We CAN make this a reality. Because he had been dreaming of fiber for many, many, many years. And of next-generation connectivity. And he is a great person to talk to about the nuts-and-bolts of how communities can get themselves wired up and make a difference for people.
Carol: And I'm hoping that -- you know, I hope the Obama administration will continue fund next-phase projects with the broadband networks throughout the country. And, as I came from the National Conference on Media Reform, this was one of the topics that really kind of stood out, because some communities -- certainly in the Southern region -- don't have connectivity at all. And those rural communities are really missing out. So I'm hoping that there's some continued funding and work around this country to get everybody access.
Chris: Right. And, Carol, I think the Independent Media Center there in Urbana-Champaign offers just a terrific model of how communities should start organizing, to make sure that they're able to take advantage of any new funding opportunities that come along.
Carol: Yes, it is. It's -- I think it's a leading -- I don't know what this community, honestly, would be without the Independent Media Center. They were on the forefront of this issue before Obama came to be. And so, I'm hoping that the Independent Media Center continues to grow into the next generation, and provide exactly the kind of push that's necessary in communities.
Chris: Great. Well, thank you so much for both of you taking time this morning to talk with us, and we look forward to following your progress.
Carol: Thank you so much for having us on.
Lisa: That was Carol Ammons and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from Urbana-Champaign in Illinois. For more information on the network, check out uc2b.org . You can learn about the current network and get news about expansion efforts. If you follow the "UC2B" tag at muninetworks.org , you'll also find video from one of Chris' presentations that was hosted by the Independent Media Center. We want to hear your questions and comments. E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also follow us on Twitter, where our handle is @communitynets . This show was released on April 16th, 2013. We want to thank Mount Carmel for their song, "Oh Louisa/Slow Blues," licensed using Creative Commons. Thanks for listening.