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Tri-Cities' debate over broadband continues

By Tona Kunz Daily Herald Staff Writer
Posted March 26, 2003

When Tri-Cities leaders decided to start looking closely at building a broadband network back in 2000, the digital divide had swallowed up the cities.

They had no hopes of getting high-speed Internet access within five years and had cable television service that made residents' blood boil.

The landscape is somewhat different now. Recent upgrades by a telecommunication giant and a proliferation of wireless companies have bridged the divide and brought high-speed Internet access west of the Fox River. The same companies' plans to roll out new cable products and satellite dish service have been picking up steam in the area.

So do you still need a publicly owned broadband utility?

Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles are asking through referendum April 1 whether to build a public utility system to provide cable television, telephone and high-speed Internet services. Providing all of that over one line is called broadband.

Broadband proponents acknowledge the accessibility argument that fueled the push toward the April 1 ballot choice has fizzled. But they say a promise of better service, higher quality and low rates keep the broadband argument just as strong as before.

Timing

City officials point to the timing of upgrades as a reason the telecom companies can't be trusted in their promises of better service and no upcoming rate increases.

AT&T and Ameritech had little interest in answering calls for system upgrades until the cities invested a little more than $100,000 to study cutting them out of the market.

Suddenly, cable trucks started building on ramps to the information superhighway in areas of the cities and representatives of the companies showed up at city meetings to answer questions.

"It is really amazing how many people have come out of the woodwork with what they are going to do for Geneva," Alderman Jim Radecki said at the time.

The telecom companies say the timing is more of a response to mergers than the cities calling for a referendum. SBC merged with Ameritech in 1999 and became SBC Illinois. Comcast merged with AT&T in November 2002 and started using the Comcast name just last month. The mergers, corporate officials say, sparked a new commitment to the Fox Valley.

SBC just finished hooking up 100 percent of Geneva, 93 percent of St. Charles and 60 percent of Batavia.

"The vast majority of our investment was before the cities ever went to referendum," said Carrie Hightman, president of SBC Illinois.

Comcast just finished providing high-speed Internet, high-definition TV and video on demand to all of Batavia and expects to complete upgrades in Geneva and St. Charles by September or October, said Area Vice President Leigh Hughes.

Both telecom companies say they have no plans to hit residents with further rate increases and don't plan system upgrades for at least another 10 years. They say any system improvements needed in the future will be borne by revenue from new product sales coming out of that technology advance. City officials doubt that, saying the mergers and on-going upgrades will leave the companies hurting for money. The cities plan to structure rates to set aside money for future upgrades without needing to ask for rate increases.

Service

Delays getting installations or repairs and an inability to reach a customer service person have been perennial complaints in the Tri-Cities.

City officials say those problems won't exist with their system because the service technicians and customer service representatives will work in town rather than at regional offices. They also contend the ability to threaten an alderman or mayor's next election will increase responsiveness and accountability.

Comcast contends adding 500 staff members in the last 11/2 years and 150 customer service representatives in the Chicago region in coming months will increase responsiveness. Creating new regional office centers in Oak Brook and Tinley Park as well as the existing Schaumburg office will keep calls from getting rerouted out of state or even to Canada.

Comcast service technicians also now have smaller zones to cover than before. Technicians for Batavia customers are based near Fermilab, while technicians for St. Charles and Geneva are in Elgin and Wheaton.

"I don't blame people for being aggravated about past service," said Comcast's Hughes. "It's a new company and a new day. I guess what I would say is, 'Give us a shot.' We're investing $350 million in the Chicago market this year. We are here to stay."

Quality

As far as cable television, the telecom giants say they can provide more because large customer bases - 22 million in the case of Comcast - provide leverage in negotiating programming contracts.

The cities say working through a consortium of other publicly owned cable systems gives them equal footing on prices and channel selection.

Glasgow, Ky., serving an area of 38,000 people, offers more than 70 channels. Tacoma, Wash., serving an area of 193,556 people, has been able to offer 242 channels.

When it comes to high-speed Internet service, the cities swear they can offer more. The cities want to install fiber optic cable right to the box on everyone's house. SBC and Comcast offer fiber to a central area in a neighborhood and then co-axial cable to the home.

Fiber optic cable is higher quality, but also more expensive. The cities contend it offers a greater capacity for additional services or speed as technology advances without having to change out the cable.

Any advances with the telecom systems would require they upgrade either the co-axial cable or the neighborhood hub where the fiber and co-axial meet. Several municipal systems, including that of Spencer, Iowa, have done this successfully several times in the last 10 to 15 years.

Comcast and SBC also say even with advances in technology their system won't need upgrading for another decade at least.

"We are not going to have to tear up yards and redesign the system down the road," Comcast's Hughes said.

The cities insist that the smarter fiscal move is to run fiber optic cable to the home, providing a system with room to grow, rather than install the cheaper co-axial cable now and risk needing upgrades down the road. No other municipality has tried to install fiber to an entire town yet, although Palo Alto, Calif., is debating that right now.

According to the Federal Communication Commission, a co-axial system's speed will decrease as more users log onto the same cable line. Telecom officials argue a minimal number of homes will hook up to each co-axial line and each homeowner won't log on at the same time.

"I think they are trying to sell us a space shuttle here," said Paul Hartsuch, a Geneva member of Tri-Cities' Citizens for Responsible Broadband, a resident group opposed to the municipal broadband plan.

A city-owned system would allow users to access the Internet at speeds 60 to 100 times faster than a dial-up modem. The SBC and Comcast systems would allow access about 20 times faster than a dial-up modem.

"You could do telecommuting and video conferencing (with both), but never to the capacity you could with fiber," said St. Charles City Administrator Larry Maholland.

SBC admits the city system would be faster, but maintains its system is more than adequate.

"For the vast majority of users, it wouldn't be worth $62 million to get the incremental increase in speed," Hightman said.

If you were to download a 10- to 20-minute movie clip, you could get it in 24 minutes to 11/2 hours, depending on your dial-up modem speed. It would take about 52 seconds using SBC's or Comcast's service, which is equivalent to the speed of a T-1 line. Once Comcast rolls out its deluxe package, Comcast Pro, later this year you could get the movie clip in about 10 seconds - the same as the cities' initial package speed. However, the city is leaving room to adjust the system to just about any speed you could want. A 10-megabits-per-second cable modem could give you the movie clip in 8 seconds. The city system will have an expandable intake box on each home that could handle 500 megabits per second, more than most computers could accept.

"Our system is not limited. Theirs is," said Geneva Information Technology Coordinator Pete Collins. "We will be able to offer anything. You could host a Web server out of your basement."

"This is a political favor by the city to small and medium businesses in the area because the residents have options," said Hartsuch of the group opposed to city-owned broadband service.

"Ours system is leaving flexibility for the future," Collins said.

• Coming Thursday: Can the Tri-Cities run a broadband company?

© 2003 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications, Inc.

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