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'
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
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.
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
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.
Delays getting installations or repairs and an inability to reach
a customer service person have been perennial complaints in the
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."
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
• Coming Thursday: Can the Tri-Cities run a broadband company?
© 2003 Daily Herald, Paddock Publications,