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Muni broadband with a twist

Thu, 11/01/2012 - 2:25pm
Brian Santo

Chicago intends to do what no American city even remotely its size has ever pulled off – get a municipal broadband network built.

There isn’t a city in the country that doesn’t want better broadband infrastructure. Several cities, tiring of waiting for the market to create those networks, have attempted to build their own. The biggest ones have all failed, usually for one of two reasons: Some never got beyond the proposal stage, blocked by commercial interests complaining about the competition; of the few that actually got built, most were unable to monetize their networks.

Chicago is trying a different route.

“Chicago has no interest in being an Internet service provider, so the competitive issue is gone,” explained John Tolva, the city’s CTO. The city’s primary concern is economic development, and broadband is only one among several means to that end.

So the city currently has out a request for interest (RFI), asking for ideas for how private interests can build and operate a gigabit fiber ring to connect a combination of a dozen existing and developing technology neighborhoods. The ring should support free Wi-Fi access in public places and should also be expandable to provide broadband access to underserved neighborhoods.

The city will sift through the responses to the RFI, then craft a request for proposals (RFP). It would expect responses to the RFP by early next year and to begin implementing the plan shortly thereafter.

“The only requirement is that the network has to be open,” Tolva explained. The ultimate idea is to “create options. Options drive down prices.”

The idea sounds very much like the line-sharing plan imposed a decade ago on DSL providers, who responded to the edict with savage bitterness, but Tolva said that even the incumbent commercial providers in Chicago – AT&T and Comcast – are receptive to the approach.

Referring to AT&T and Comcast, Tolva said, “I am certain they will be part of the solution.”

The city is volunteering use of unused capacity on existing municipal broadband infrastructure, with the expectation that the contractor will fill in the gaps in the ring. Chicago will offer access along water and sewer lines, some of which will be dug up for routine maintenance, with more digs specifically for the broadband project.

Who will benefit? Companies like coffee wholesaler Intelligentsia, which has equipped all of its growers with iPads so that they can keep in contact with their supply chain. Intelligentsia started out in a warehouse in a neighborhood without high-speed broadband.

“We have a pipeline of technological talent coming out of our universities,” Tolva said. “They’ll need a platform upon which to innovate. This will be part of it.”

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