Few cities in the Midwest exhibit a more starkly contrasted digital divide than Champaign-Urbana. Urbana is home to one of the most prestigious universities for science and engineering research in the country. The University of Illinois' students enjoy broadband Internet connections in their dorms and in most student housing. These truths help encourage technology corporations like Yahoo!, Qualcomm and Wolfram Research to take up residence in CU. Together, the University and the businesses it attracts allow an affluent class to thrive in C-U. This collection of professionals, faculty, and students do not suffer a lack of broadband Internet connection options in their neighborhoods and homes.
This holds true for many middle- and some working-class C-U residents. At the same time, residents of areas such as North Champaign may technically have access to a broadband connection, but few possess the resources necessary to maintain a subscription to those services. In the near future, these same residents may not even have ostensible access to future Internet connection technologies. Mike Smeltzer, Director of Networking for CITES at the UI, is writing a proposal that will request Recovery Act funds for the purpose of building a high-capacity broadband network in C-U that would provide a complete Internet access solution for residents of North Champaign. By contrast, AT&T is bringing fast fiber Internet connectivity to C-U in the near future, but likely with a focus on serving more affluent areas of town.
"If you were gonna [draw] a map and show where we're gonna go and [AT&T is] gonna go, you cover the whole community, [but] there's not much overlap," says Smeltzer. "They're not serving that area [North Champaign]."
The severe disparity between the opportunities for those with broadband access to the Internet and those without is sufficiently widespread in the U.S., so much so that Congress appropriated $7.2 billion in the Recovery Act to pay for construction of broadband networks in cities across the country. Safiya Noble, research assistant in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UI, says, "The current broadband stimulus proposal [was] really [a response] to the industry not providing service in the lowest-income areas. ... From that point of view, part of the industry has already chosen not to serve those low income communities. Many of those are predominantly African-American neighborhoods where people of color are concentrated or poor people are concentrated."
At the moment, there are few places in C-U where the public can access the Internet for free. Free, public Internet access is different from free "wifi" available in bars, restaurants, and cafes. Free Internet access is a location where someone without a laptop or Internet-enabled device can use a computer with an Internet connection. There used to be two community technology centers in C-U. Now there is just one.
"We lost the Urban League and the Urban League along with the [Independent Media Center] were two of the main technology centers in the community," says Danielle Chynoweth, co-founder and former co-chair of the Broadband Access Committee (BAC). Chynoweth notes that the IMC doesn't currently have many computing resources and the organization's public-access equipment is more than three years old.
Scarcity of online access profoundly harms vulnerable populations, most notably children. "Teachers could tell you which kids have Internet at home to help them do homework, presentations, to become researchers. The difference in performance between those who have it and those who don't is noticeable," says Noble. Chynoweth expounds: "There's a lot of people who are not connected. ... Go to the Urbana Free Library at 2:30 when school gets out. ... Go and see how long the lines are to get on those public-access stations. They told me that they are completely overloaded. They have so many people waiting and they are only allowed on for half an hour."
BRIDGING THE BROADBAND GAP IN C-U
The existing broadband access options in C-U are, or soon will be, technologically inadequate. Broadband ISPs have been the subject of ridicule among many tech-savvy users perturbed by ISP attempts to disrupt certain type of Internet communications such as BitTorrent traffic. In January, Comcast rolled out data caps, a limit on the amount of data users are allowed to download, and a complex bandwidth throttling scheme, a limit on download speeds, to all of its markets. In April, Time Warner Cable earned significant ire by rolling out bandwidth caps across all of its markets. Time Warner removed the caps under threats of public protest.
Even without the artificial degradation of service, the technology that ISPs currently use to bridge the last mile from the network to the home cannot physically carry enough data to support future uses of the Internet. Smeltzer believes that Internet users in the future will expect their connection to host simultaneous phone calls and high-definition television as well as regular Internet access. Far from simply catering to the bandwidth needs of big content companies, the community itself will be able to directly utilize features like capacity for high definition video. Members of the BAC anticipate that community-generated video and voice applications will benefit the community greatly. "The community could become producers of knowledge, producers of content and ideas and uploaders, not just downloaders from Hulu and NBC and HBO," says Noble.
Current broadband solutions on offer from Comcast and AT&T cannot transfer the amount of data at sufficient speeds to make those applications usable. Speaking of the incumbent broadband ISPs in C-U, Chynoweth suggests that the businesses "don't have any reason to provide you with a high-quality service. ... The current private entities do not meet our community's needs."
In order to address C-U's needs, technology leaders and community activists founded the Broadband Access Committee last fall as a subcommittee of the Champaign-Urbana Cable Television and Telecommunications Commission. The founders of the BAC charged it with advising the C-U Cable TV and Telecommunications Commission on how it should proceed in establishing an advanced broadband communications plan. The BAC is comprised of Chynoweth, Smeltzer, chairperson Peter Resnick, local IT business owners, community technology activists, and UI professors, many of whom have been active in trying to bring equal Internet access to the community for years. The values of the BAC reflect those of its members. The committee explicitly calls for public control of the new network, fair uses of the network to equally benefit all members of the community, and open-access requirements for the network — meaning the operators shall not favor certain applications of the network over others. For example, network operators will not artificially decrease available bandwidth for applications like voice over IP or peer-to-peer file sharing in order to prioritize video from an approved television provider.
On February 17, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was signed into law. It allocated billions in federal funding for cities and towns across the U.S. to plan and build a broadband infrastructure to create jobs while addressing the specific needs of "unserved" and "underserved" populations. Urban communities wishing to receive funds from the act must submit a working proposal to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The act requires the NTIA to favor proposals that focus on bringing Internet access to said unserved and underserved populations via community-controlled networks that emphasize Net Neutrality-like principles. The BAC had not anticipated the sudden availability or the generous amount of funds from the federal government. According to Chynoweth, "money's coming down and we don't have our plan yet."
Smeltzer got the ball rolling. He developed an ambitious plan to use Recovery Act funds to build a citywide fiber computer network. His proposal considers the needs of unserved and underserved residents of Champaign to be paramount. His plan calls for building the fiber infrastructure along Bradley Avenue in the first year. Recovery Act funds would also cover the cost of installing fiber cables for North Champaign residents and would possibly extend to purchasing PC hardware, training, and support for these residents. To show how the network could be owned and operated, Smeltzer used a model of a municipally owned nonprofit company to administer the network. The fiber's bandwidth would be accessible to any organizations that wish to run services on it, providing they pay some kind of fee. In the second year, the fiber infrastructure would be built out to other areas of C-U.
Even Smeltzer's detailed yet tentative proposal covers only a few major aspects of the kind of broadband network the more technically minded members of the BAC are envisioning. In order to flesh out the proposal's skeleton, more ideas are needed. "Ultimately it needs community vetting and public input," says Chynoweth.
To that end, Noble started a website, Champaign-Urbana Open Access Coalition, to serve as an access point to the BAC for individuals and organizations who want to do more to address the digital divide in C-U. Of course, collecting input from the intended primary beneficiaries of the broadband infrastructure project would be difficult over the Internet. "People who don't have access to the Internet who are not reading online about the current debate ... are not participating, digitally," says Noble. "They're not having as much of a voice."
In order to facilitate community feedback to the BAC about the proposed project, the committee is also holding a series of three public forums. Two of the forums have already occurred. The first, held on April 25 at the university's Graduate Students in Library and Information Sciences building, was the first time the public had a chance to respond to the BAC's ideas about the direction of Internet access in C-U. After Abdul Alkalimat, a UI faculty member in community informatics and BAC member, opened the forum and members of the BAC gave introductory presentations, attendees were encouraged to speak at the podium about their hopes and concerns for the project. Many attendees took this opportunity to speak out. Overall, the forum were concerned mostly with the number and kinds of jobs that the project would create, but several attendees stressed the fundamental need for some form of free Internet access.
The second BAC forum was held in the auditorium of the Urbana Free Library on May 9. This forum used a different format to foster ideas and encourage public feedback. It featured "problem jostles" where BAC members laid sheets of paper with questions written on them on tables. Chynoweth, Smeltzer, Alkalimat, and Noble gave introductory presentations. At one point, Noble asked the audience, "How many people here are from North Champaign?" Only four or five hands went up.
Participants in this forum were encouraged to move to the table with the question laid on it that sparked their interest. A BAC member was at each table to listen to and participate in the discussion. After a few minutes, each table reported their decisions back to the rest of the forum. Participants came up with their own responses to questions like "How can we ensure broadband stimulus funds stay in the local economy?", "How will and can this network be governed?", and "Who needs to be at the table that isn't?"
After the first problem jostle, time was provided for participants to ask their own questions. One group responded to the lack of North Champaign representation in the forum by brainstorming ideas for how to reach that community. They estimated that organizers in the broadband project should take a more direct approach to including that community. The table suggested door-to-door programs for direct, honest, one-to-one involvement with residents of North Champaign.
The third and final public forum will be Thursday, May 21 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Champaign Public Library's Robeson Pavilion Room C. Anyone interested in the future of open access in C-U should attend and visit the C-U Open Access website.
Copyright Brian Duggan 2009