University looks to expand South Side Internet coverage

After dropping a contract with the company Gigabit Squared, the University is in talks with other organizations.

By Natalie Friedberg

After committing $2 million to Gigabit Squared, a company trying to bring broadband Internet to neighborhoods on the South Side, the University of Chicago is dissolving its contract with the company. However, the University remains interested in helping expand Internet coverage in the area.

High-speed Internet is seen as a critical ingredient in community development on the South Side and across the country, with applications in healthcare, education, business, and residential use.  For example, it allows for faster file downloads for local businesses, medical video-conferencing for doctors, and use of educational software for schools.

However, nearly 40 percent of Chicago citizens have limited or no access to the Internet, according to a study by Karen Mossberger from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The cost of high-speed Internet from current funders, [like] Comcast [or] AT&T, is very expensive. We want to offer that at a lower price and offer it to residents who can’t afford it,” said Pierre Clark of the Woodlawn Broadband Expansion Partnership (WBEP), a local organization that has been working to bring high-speed Internet to the South Side.

In an attempt to deal with this issue, the University signed a memorandum on October 16, 2012, along with the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois, to commit $1 million to the Gigabit Squared project to build fiber optic cables in various neighborhoods on the South Side. The University also pledged to raise another $1 million for the cause.

However, the University never gave Gigabit Squared the promised money, and now the two organizations have negotiated to dissolve the contract.

“Gigabit Squared asked to be released from its contract with the University, and the University has agreed,” said Calmetta Coleman, director of communications for Civic Engagement.

Two years later, Gigabit Squared has yet to make any headway on broadband expansion in Chicago, despite having received financial commitments from the University, the City of Chicago, and the State of Illinois. Gigabit Squared spokesperson Matt Weinland declined to comment on the reason for the delays.

Gigabit Squared unrolled a similar initiative in Seattle, and the project met a similar fate. The company ran dry, with $52,250 in debt to the city and no high-speed Internet delivered.  There were also major shifts in company leadership at around the same time, with CEO Mark Ansboury stepping down due to “strategic differences.”

According to Weinland, updates from Gigabit Squared about the Chicago project will be coming soon, although he was unable to give an exact date.

“We’re working feverishly to get a few things taken care of,” he said.

Meanwhile, other organizations on the South Side are taking initiative and working to bring faster Internet to the community. The WBEP, led by Clark, will be testing a Wi-Fi connection over two blocks in Woodlawn in mid-March and plans to have most of Woodlawn connected by the end of the year.

“We need to catch up with everybody else around the world, and we need to bring [Internet] to more places in the U.S.,” Clark said.

Broadband Internet is composed of two parts: underground fiber optic cables and Wi-Fi. Although the cable is expensive to build initially, the resulting Internet is cheaper and faster with a speed of one gigabit—100 times faster than what is currently available—for as low as $90 per month.

Most South Side residents use a DSL line, which is the slowest and cheapest form of Internet and involves using telephone lines already in place.  It provides 10 megabits per second of bandwidth at anywhere from $40 and $100 per month.

The WBEP has been in talks with Will Towns from the University’s Office of Civic Engagement about potentially receiving investments to fund their activities, and they are also petitioning the city for more funding.

“The University continues to be interested in supporting efforts to bring high speed, gigabit level internet to the mid-South Side, so we’re continuing to talk to various partners, organizations about ideas to do that,” Coleman said.