Sabrina Gosnell is the operations manager for UC2B, the organization that aims to bring broadband internet to the entire community of Champaign-Urbana. She’s the lone person employed by the organization. The rest are contractors, hired through the University or employment agencies to run the network and help out with administrative tasks.
She’s nice. So are Brandon Bowersox-Johnson and Mike Smeltzer. But everyone from the board directors on down are rightfully scant on details about the partnership with a private company, a partnership that will likely be the catalyst for expanding UC2B and adding additional homes and businesses to the network.
It’s about not giving one company an advantage over another, Gosnell said. Especially the larger companies. UC2B wants to announce the deal to the community on its own terms.
For that reason, specifics about the fate of UC2B are really unknown. They depend on the partnership agreement between UC2B and the private company, what the terms of the agreement are, and what the combined direction of UC2B and the private company enables them to pursue.
Brandon Bowersox-Johnson said in an email that the real key for partnering with a private company is that company’s adherence and embodiment of the core principles of UC2B. The principles are:
- The network must be fiber, not alternative technologies, offering high speeds.
- There must be open access to enable fair and open competition forever.
- The network must be built to all members of the community, with no redlining.
There are safeguards built-in before the agreement as well. The federal government still owns a large percent of the fiber, meaning a private company can’t just come in, buy it, and start charging whatever they want to charge, to whomever they want to charge it to.
When asked about the ideal situation 12 months down the road, Gosnell said, “The ideal situation in 12 months is that we have a partner who espouses our core values and our core principles. We have that operation partner and they’re building out into the community in earnest. She went on to say:
The not-for-profit has a role in continuing community engagement and being a liaison. It has to decide on its role going forward and there is certainly space for the not-for-profit to stay a very strong-standing entity who works truly as a partner.
While the private company will be focused primarily on operations of the fiber network, the not-for-profit side of the partnership (UC2B) will be focused on the community as a whole and what the fiber network can bring to Champaign-Urbana.
“We’re really focused on sort of on the broader vision on economic development, digital inclusion and all that,” Gosnell said. “So I think it’s important in our ideal world to maintain that community piece and have a capable operating partner that is capable of handling the fiber.”
There are only a handful of communities that have what UC2B offers. Chattanooga, TN, is one. Lafayette, LA, is another. But according to Sabrina Champaign-Urbana is still ahead of the curve. There are battles taking place across the country to stop what UC2B has already done — build a broadband network that provides affordable and fast internet access to an entire community.
The broadband network that UC2B offers lowers the overall cost of high-speed internet for the consumer and creates competition for telecommunications companies, a fact that telecommunication companies don’t like.
“I think the ultimate long-term goal of UC2B in the community is to bring fiber to the entire community, to foster competition through open-access, to facilitate education,” she said. “I think we are ahead of the curve and I think if we continue to focus on things the way we have been I think we will stay ahead of the curve.”
And there are numerous organizations in Champaign-Urbana that have already taken advantage of the fiber network. As mentioned in the previous article, Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District (MTD) recently used the fiber to install security cameras and electronic kiosks at many of its bus stops. An article in the News-Gazette covered well how Champaign schools are using the technology to aid teachers and students in the classrooms. Even Research Park, with its already robust fiber system, may use the new internet speed capabilities to help with company functions like group videoconferencing.
And those are just the companies. Gosnell stated:
One of the fundamental tenets of this is focus on bringing fiber to neighborhoods that haven’t had it before. It’s not just a powerful tool for entities like the Carle Hospital, but it levels the playing field for education by bringing access, and if we can bring that to the entire community, it will strengthen our entire community.
There certainly will be challenges faced along the way.
“Running an organization is challenging and competing with large entities that have seemingly endless stream of resources,” she said. “The challenge will be a balance between being an entity that is viable and serving the needs of the community.”
And, for Gosnell, UC2B and the fiber network will be yet another step in making Champaign-Urbana a unique community with things to offer that no one else has. She continued:
We’ve got a top University in the world really. We’ve got unique music festivals, we’ve got a lot of culture here, and we’ve got a lot of certain technical innovations here, so we’re already unique. But UC2B facilitates us maintaining that and setting us apart from other communities in the United States.