UC2B and the Digital Divide in Champaign-Urbana

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In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about universal access to and affordability of high-speed internet services. In the 2009 stimulus package, $7.2 billion was allocated for broadband development and employment in underserved (rural) and underserved (generally low-income) areas. Last year, the Federal Communications Commission created the National Broadband Plan. Already this year high-speed internet was again discussed in the State of the Union address, which put an emphasis on wireless internet access.

Why all the fuss? Because high-speed internet access creates economic, educational and political opportunities. Communities that are trying to get by without a reliable broadband connection are at an enormous disadvantage nationally and even globally. There are also many barriers that technological illiteracy could pose to an individual’s life. For example, it is nearly impossible to find employment without using several types of technology to create a resume, fill out a job application, and send them to an employer.

Champaign-Urbana is not unserved by any stretch of the imagination, but there are underserved areas. A survey done in the summer of 2009 found that, in about 10% of the two cities, less than 40% of homes have an internet connection. It is a travesty that the town hosting PC Magazine’s Most Wired Campus in 2008 has so many people on the disconnected side of the digital divide.

In an attempt to help solve this problem here in Champaign-Urbana, the two cities and the University applied for and won a $27 million federal grant to build a network, known as UC2B, that will connect homes in the underserved areas of town, and community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, churches, and city buildings citywide. The grant is targeted at underserved areas (so the network will only immediately serve a small portion of Champaign-Urbana), but we all expect the project to continue further build-out following the completion of the first phase. Another goal the cities had for UC2B was to create construction jobs during its creation, and other economic opportunities later, with an emphasis on areas that are currently economically disadvantaged. In order for that goal to be realized, the community will have to fight for those jobs and make sure that opportunities are accessible to local companies.

Other organizations are also doing projects that will improve broadband access in Champaign-Urbana.

  • The Graduate School of Library and Information Science’s Community Informatics students provide technical expertise to nontechnical innovators, through a variety of programs.
  • The Independent Media Center has a selection of programs like the Chambana.net datacenter, the CU Community Helpdesk, and Makerspace Urbana.
  • Comcast is expected to develop a low-cost tier of service as part of the agreement it made when it acquired NBC, and it will use its recently rolled out DOCSIS-3 to offer faster internet access than is widely available today.
  • Volo Broadband, a local Internet Service Provider, is rolling out enhanced wireless infrastructure in some areas and providing fiber-based access in others.
  • On the jobs side, Metanoia Centers is promoting a “community benefit” approach to building UC2B.
  • Backbone Builders is working to ensure that the people that work on UC2B and similar projects come from the local population, and that the jobs create long-lasting benefit for the local economy.
    These initiatives will improve the quality of internet access, how many people that access reaches, and the practical benefit that technology provides to our community. These intertwined issues of access to technology and economic power can’t be solved without the community’s involvement and direction. Luckily, there are many ways to get involved. Of course, you can contact your city council member to let them know your position on these issues. But more interactively:
  • Since UC2B is funded with tax dollars under supervision of public entities, all of the UC2B Policy Committee meetings, and many other meetings, are open to the public. You can make your voice heard in person here for a full list of UC2B meetings and events.
  • UC2B’s website has background information about the project. • The Chambana Broadband Connection (connection. volo.net) is a blog about UC2B, national broadband news, and technology tips and tricks run by Volo Broadband.
  • Finally, eBlackCU, a project aiming to create a strong African American community in Champaign-Urbana, has been very active in the discussion of UC2B. They will be holding a meeting on March 19th at the Champaign Public Library on technology, UC2B, and the future of Champaign-Urbana. Attend a meeting, comment on a blog, or show up at an event, but make your voice heard to ensure broadband develops in a way that solves real problems.

About Laura Allured

As the Broadband Access Advocate at the UC-IMC, Laura Allured has been following UC2B since before the application, and is a contributing author for the Chambana Broadband Connection. She is the Public Outreach Coordinator for the UIUC Informatics Club and regularly volunteers to teach basic computing skills with Real Computing Help. Laura is finishing up her last year at UIUC in French Commercial Studies and Informatics.
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