Chicago looks to launch gigabit broadband service

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has long talked of turning Chicago into a high-tech hub for the Internet, is embarking on new a gigabit fiber project that includes installing Wi-Fi in many city parks and outfitting 15 commercial corridors with super high-speed gigabit networks.

Emanuel, who announced the project this week, said the hope is that this high-speed network would give commercial users in Chicago a major technological advantage while bringing new business to the city. A second aim of the fiber build-out is to provide low-cost broadband access to underserved and disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city, and to create training programs to teach residents in those areas the digital skills necessary to put that access to use.

“The technological landscape has changed to the point where it’s not a nice-to-have,” John Tolva, the city’s chief technology officer, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “This is as vital as clean drinking water, at least to the economic life of a city.”

The Chicago Broadband Challenge, as it was named, was short on details. There have been at least three previous attempts since 1998 to bring a next-generation Internet network to Chicago, and this one will be left to the private sector, universities and other groups to pay for. The mayor invited partners to participate, but said he would wait to study the responses he receives before providing details as to the city’s involvement.

Emmanuel suggested that as roads are torn up for planned water infrastructure upgrades, a broadband provider could simultaneously install underground fiber-optic cable for the network. The city also could free up unused capacity on existing fiber laid alongside Chicago Transit Authority routes, he added.

Gigabit Internet service is already available in Chicago at a cost of about $3500 a month. Chicago officials expect to see this cost drop considerably once gigabit networks are turned on in the 15 designated zones. They estimated the build-out could be finished within 2 1/2 years.

Emmanuel said the idea came from a suggestion by Google’s Eric Schmidt. Google earlier this year installed a gigabit network in Kansas City, MO, giving the city speeds that are 100 times faster than a basic cable modem. The service in Kansas City is available for both businesses and households.

A thriving technology community has moved to Chicago’s River North neighborhood in the last year, spurred by startup hub 1871, Excelerate Labs and Google’s decision to relocate Motorola to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. Emanuel wants to expand this “Digital Alley” into the new tech zones where high tech businesses can continue to expand.