While the implementation of Google Fiber might make you think otherwise, not all gigabit cities are on smooth sailing. Google has the magic combination of offering fast speed at a low price. Others, like Chattanooga, TN, have gotten the speed but not the low price. While some states have even implemented anti-municipal broadband laws for some unknown reason, some cities are running into their own problems trying to implement gigabit connections to their residents.
Urbana and Champaign, cities in central Illinois and home of the University of Illinois campus, in partnership with UIUC have pushed forward with a project known as UC2B or Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband. The project started off with federal grants with a plan to connect underserved homes in the cities. It has successfully connected about 850 subscribers and another phase of the project aims to connect more of the city.
$19.99/month: 20Mbps Upstream/Downstream Internet
$29.99/month: 30Mbps Upstream/Downstream Internet
$39.99/month: 40Mbps Upstream/Downstream Internet
Different prices for commercial subscription with higher possible bandwidth.
$70/month: 1Gbps Up/Down Internet
$120/month: Gigabit Internet + TV
UC2B’s pricing is certainly competitive. It is half the price of what I pay for the same speeds from Mediacom. The reason for the lower price could be that the taxpayers on the federal and state level are picking up the $30 million tab for the first round of infrastructure installation. The biggest benefit may also be introducing competition to the common duopolies that occur in cities around the country with a single cable company providing cable Internet and a single phone company providing DSL. There are stories of other ISPs increasing speeds for those near Google Fiber and Comcast recently increased the speed at no cost for those in Champaign and Urbana.
To keep the pricing low, UC2B seems to have cut back on the customer service side or they just did not see it coming that a support structure would be necessary for providing a utility like broadband. The project was not just to install fiber and hand it off to some other company but to continue to provide service and support to its customers. As the build-out continues and more subscribers are connected, the amount of support needed is only going to increase. The local newspaper captured some of the frustration subscribers are experiencing with the lack of support to the new ISP. In an article High-speed frustration and an editorial Big Broadband or big boondoggle, the News-Gazette has highlighted the problems customers are encountering.
The issues seem to fall in two categories: customer service and installation issues. Customer service issues included an outsourced call center in Charleston, only 45 minutes away, that had a script but could do little else besides schedule technicians of the sub-contractor to visit. When the technicians never showed up, the resident was inconvenienced and there seemed to be nobody to hold accountable. Installation issues included torn up yards, large holes drilled in customers’ walls without being filled, broken siding, and sometimes digging before locating other services (JULIE) which could risk harm to the installer, gas leaks, or disruption of other utilities. Along with those issues, the installations are also behind on connecting subscribers. 450 subscribers have been waiting months to be connected. As a result of the poor experience, the city dismissed the contractor, Power Up Electrical, from the job and hired Western Utility to finish the job. The original contractor’s owner has this ironic quote:
And the company’s owner says he knows how important the job is.
“We know that if I don’t do a good job, there might not be an opportunity behind me,” said Michael Kennedy Jr., owner of Power Up Electrical Contractors. “It raises the stakes.”
The original goal was to have 2,700 customers connected before the grant ran out. Some of these problems seem to be highlighted by the consultant that the cities hired before approving the project. The recommendations of the consultant seem like they were quickly dismissed though by the project lead, yet here the problems are biting them in the present.
“We are a business,” said Champaign economic development manager Teri Legner. “We never, ever envisioned that.”
While the city of Champaign took the lead on the project, they now plan to distance themselves. They plan to establish a non-profit entity to handle the administrative tasks related to the UC2B project. The entity will be run by a board appointed by the government agencies involved in the project, the city of Champaign, the city of Urbana, and the University of Illinois.
For $30 million dollars, only about 10 percent of the cities’ residents are served. It also seems that the soft bandwidth caps on UC2B have not been implemented, further sweetening the deal for those few able to get connected. While I lived in the CU area, I had DSL with AT&T, cable with Insight and Comcast (which bought Insight), and Fiber-to-the-Premise through AT&T U-Verse. While all of them were fine, they had the same issue I experience currently – the connection is pricier than what a government-subsidized ISP can charge. Other than that, the speed and responding to service requests were fine. Many in the area also seem to recommend any of those options where UC2B is not available (or anything but Pavlov Media).
UC2B will probably get over these hurdles, more people will be connected, and many wrinkles associated with the new and large project will get smoothed out. Perhaps it may be a lesson though on governments diving on grants and finding that the costs will exceed the grant funding or the amount of money contributed to a small percentage of constituents is unfair to the city, state, and federal tax payers. If a project like this were to happen again, which will no doubt be the case, it seems some lessons learned would be to prepare a non-profit organization first to coordinate and administer the project. The second lesson learned would be that providing broadband access is similar to providing water service or trash pick-up, it is not just about installing the infrastructure, but it needs to include the support to the service and the subscribers – another analogy that broadband has become a utility.