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Decatur, Illinois Continues to Expand Its Institutional Network
Decatur, Illinois (pop. 71,000) is moving forward with an Institutional Network (I-Net) expansion that will connect 11 school districts and 3 firehouses to its growing fiber-optic backbone, connecting potential commercial and industry customers along the way.
The city of Decatur has been expanding its fiber network since 2014, when it decided to deploy a backbone network connecting several of its facilities. This most recent expansion will extend the access to Franklin and Parsons schools, Stephen Decatur Middle School, Eisenhower and MacArthur high schools, American Dreamer STEM Academy, Dennis Lab School, Hope Academy, Johns Hill Magnet School and William Harris Learning Academy.
The expansion is the result of a 5-0 city council vote in April approving a $915,000 contract with Bodine Electric to purchase and hang 144 strand fiber-optic cable.
A portion of the funding for the contract will come from a $800,000 grant from the Connect Illinois grant program, an initiative aimed at expanding broadband access. The program launched in 2019 with $420-million investment in broadband infrastructure. The first round of grants totaled $50 million with a combined $9.25 million going to monopoly ISPs CenturyLink, MediaCom, Spectrum, and Comcast and the rest going to local ISPs and city and county governments.
The remaining $115,000 allocated in the contract will come from the state’s portion of the American Rescue Plan fund.
While the city will fund the expansion of the backbone to pass by the schools and connect the firehouses, Decatur Public Schools (DPS) will also contribute $600,000 to connect the schools to the street fiber. The contribution is also from the Connect Illinois Grant Program.
When the state grants came through, the city and DPS saw an opportunity to collaborate.
Foundation Plans to Fund Municipal Broadband Infrastructure
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.”