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Chicago aims for Internet access in parks, underserved neighborhoods

Free wi-fi is already available Millennium Park thanks an agreement quietly reached with Chicago-based SilverlP Communications.   | Richard

Free wi-fi is already available in Millennium Park, thanks to an agreement quietly reached with Chicago-based SilverlP Communications. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: October 26, 2012 6:10AM

Dangling the use of light poles, streets, alleys, freight tunnels and unused city-owned fiber, Mayor Rahm Emanuel tried Monday to jump-start his predecessor’s failed plan to establish high-speed Internet access to under-served Chicago neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces.

Emanuel hopes to succeed where former Mayor Richard M. Daley failed by leveraging his plan to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and by dividing the city into 15 commercial corridors with a separate competition in each zone.

Free wi-fi is already available in Millennium Park, thanks to an agreement quietly reached with Chicago-based SilverlP Communications.

Now, Emanuel is inviting companies, universities and organizations to suggest ways to leverage the city’s “existing infrastructure and assets” to bring “free or heavily discounted, multi-megabit Internet service over a wired or wireless network” to businesses, underserved neighborhoods and, ultimately, to every park and public plaza in Chicago in each of the 15 zones.

“To further these goals, the city may offer a variety of supporting assets, including: access to existing city-owned fiber; right-of-way access to [underground] freight tunnels, water mains and sewers; coordination with planned city construction work to modernize the water and sewer infrastructure; up to $30 million in IT [information technology] spending by the city and its sister agencies and other forms of investment,” the city’s “request-for-information” states.

Emanuel recalled the recent conversation he had with Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google.

“I was talking to him about our investment in our water infrastructure. I told him that we’re replacing 900 miles of water pipe, 650 miles of sewer,160,000 catch basins. He said it’s a unique opportunity, given the fact that you’re actually gonna be ripping up the roads, to lay the broad-band and the dark fiber throughout the city,” the mayor said.

The mayor was asked whether he’s prepared to give winning bidders free access to unused fiber and other city assets and the go-ahead to charge a nominal fee.

“If we have to charge, we may look at that, but I’m not gonna pre-judge” the competition, he said.

Chief Technology Officer John Tolva was asked how Chicago can succeed in delivering a free- or low-cost Internet service when other cities have stumbled.

“The freight tunnels and alleys are key. Most cities don’t have as much as we do. We’re also opening up the streets for water and sewer repairs. For a provider to open up the streets on their own on such a large scale would be prohibitive,” Tolva said.

“Because we’re already opening them up and because the city and sister agencies have fiber we own that isn’t being fully used, that’s a big thing we bring to the table. Because it runs along the CTA line and it’s unused capacity, it means they don’t have to build everything. They can piggyback on this unused capacity along the rail lines. And we can’t charge for right of way on the CTA, given how it’s funded.”

The 15 designated areas include: the Loop; West Loop; River North; Bucktown/Wicker Park; McCormick Place/Cermak; the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor; Loyola University; DePaul; the Illinois Medical District; the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT); the University of Illinois at Chicago; Roosevelt University and Columbia College; the University of Chicago and the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Also included is the now-shuttered Michael Reese Hospital that Daley purchased for an Olympic Village, then wanted to turn into a technology park after Chicago’s first-round flame-out in the Olympic sweepstakes.

“The core fiber network is very targeted to the innovation zones. That’s a scope that’s different than what was attempted before. It’s fewer places. Building a network to those areas enables us to do interesting things in public spaces,” Tolva said.

“Building this network provides a framework for other providers to extend into neighborhoods. But, that’s not our going-in priority. The going-in priority is the innovation zones and public spaces and working with existing providers to drive down cost and drive up speeds. That may not require a new network.”

Five years ago, Daley unveiled a similarly ambitious plan to build a wireless Internet access system attached to streetlights and lamp poles.

The city’s initial goal was to create an alternative broadband service that could compete with cable, DSL and cell phone-based wireless service and drives down costs.

In exchange for paying Chicago a sizeable monthly fee and possibly a share of revenues, a technology company or group would have installed, maintained and upgraded roughly 7,500 small antennas on streetlight poles every 1.5 or two blocks, at a cost of roughly $18.5 million.

The new system would have given Chicago a sorely needed revenue stream — and carried benefits far beyond the tens of millions it would have raised.

Instead of racing over to Starbucks to get wireless access from your laptop or paying a monthly fee to the phone company to get it at home, the Internet would have been available almost anywhere.

Rising costs, declining demand and increased competition from private Internet providers killed that plan, prompting Daley to settle for a far less ambitious plan to bridge the “digital divide.”

Daley declared four impoverished neighborhoods — Englewood, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Pilsen — “digital excellence demonstration communities” that will be flooded with technology to demonstrate the Internet’s “transformative power.”

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