UC2B brings high speed internet to C-U

Beneath the streets of Champaign-Urbana, fiber-optic cables are already pushing bits at blistering speeds into 2,500 homes and 200 community organizations across one of fastest networks in the nation, and perhaps the world.

The Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband, or UC2B, is in process of hooking up nearly $30 million worth of sunken fiber rings in Champaign, Urbana and Savoy, helping reach the internet-starved sections of these areas.

Funded in part by federal stimulus money and state funding, UC2B is a massive collaborative effort between the cities of Champaign and Urbana, the University and the US Ignite project, which aims to build applications that leverage the incredible speed of fiber-optic connections.

For Mike Smeltzer, CITES director of networking and acting director of physical infrastructure, the wait for next-generation internet has been a long one: 15 years.

In 1997, Smeltzer, then an a local internet business owner, proposed a project to build fiber rings throughout the community, calling it C-Unet-2000, because he thought it would take only three years to complete. Smeltzer admitted that he was “overly optimistic” about the project in 1997.

“We’re finally doing it,” he said. “Right now, we can say to a family that they’ll have a better connection from their child’s bedroom to the school district’s resources than they would even have from the classroom.”

That kind of access and speed is crucial to what Urbana City Council alderman Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, Ward 4, repeatedly referred to as “the digital divide”; that is, the growing economic and social gap between those with internet access, and those without.

The first challenge is just convincing those who have never used the internet, or even computers, that it could measurably improve their lives.

“Bridging that digital divide is really making clear ... why it’s so important to learn how to use a computer and getting connected in the home,” Bowersox-Johnson said. “So much of our society, whether it’s our education, our health care (or) our democracy relies on our ability to get information.”

As part of UC2B consortium’s grant application in 2009, students, faculty and staff at the Graduate School of Library Science, or GSLIS, conducted. It found that eleven census block groups in Champaign-Urbana had less than 41 percent of residents with high-speed internet, qualifying as “underserved” according to federal guidelines.

“We find that most of the people in the targeted areas want the internet,” said GSLIS associate professor Jon Gant. “A great opportunity for students and campus is to come up with ways to help people get computers and ways to help people learn how to use computers.”

The UC2B consortium is currently looking for private sector solutions to expand the network to serve larger areas in Urbana-Champaign.