Rahm Emanuel
© Aude Guerrucci/POOL/EPA
Former White House chief of staff and now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Way back in 2006, even before the iPad, then-Mayor Richard Daley proposed blanketing Chicago with Wi-Fi. That ambitious plan for wireless Internet access for computers never came to fruition.

Now, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who speaks often of making Chicago into a high-tech hub, is pushing a new broadband initiative that includes installing Wi-Fi in many city parks and outfitting 15 commercial corridors with a superhigh-speed "gigabit" network for business users. The plan also contemplates expanding Internet access in underserved areas.

The city believes the availability of broadband networks will give commercial users a much-needed technological boost and attract business while burnishing Chicago's tech image.

"The technological landscape has changed to the point where it's not a nice-to-have," said John Tolva, the city's chief technology officer, who recalled at least three previous attempts since 1998 to bring a next-generation network to Chicago. "This is as vital as clean drinking water, at least to the economic life of a city."

But apparently it will be up to private-sector players, universities and other groups to do the work and foot much of the bill.

The Chicago Broadband Challenge, announced Monday, is big on ideas but short on details. The city, which issued a Request for Information -- in effect, an invitation to partners -- didn't provide figures on what kind of total investment would be needed to carry out Emanuel's vision or how much it plans to spend. Officials were also mum on whether the city envisions collecting revenue from the project, but it painted a general picture of a public-private partnership, with the city providing infrastructure.

At a Monday news conference, when asked what kind of financial arrangements the city might make with private companies for freeing up municipal assets, Emanuel said he wanted to first study the responses from the RFI.

"If we have to charge, we'll look at it," he said. "But I'm not going to prejudge the process."

The city offered some scenarios for how it could work with private tech businesses. For example, as roads are ripped up for planned water infrastructure upgrades, a broadband provider could install underground fiber-optic cable for the gigabit network. The city also could free up unused capacity on existing fiber laid alongside Chicago Transit Authority routes.

Gigabit speeds are already available to local businesses, but the service can cost upward of $3,500 a month, Tolva said. Officials expect to see this cost come way down once gigabit networks are turned on in the 15 designated zones. Tolva said he believes the build-out can be completed within 2 1/2 years.

"We didn't prescribe costs (to users) because we want to see what comes in," he told the Tribune. "But we're not talking about half (the current cost). We're talking about really reshaping the economies of scale."

If Emanuel's vision comes to fruition, Chicago would be at the vanguard of major metropolises with widespread, advanced broadband connectivity. Smaller cities have led the way in providing blazing-fast Internet to households and businesses.

About 150 local governments provide Internet connectivity as a municipal service and about half of them have laid fiber-optic cable networks, said Christopher Mitchell of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit group that advocates community development. Most of the cities have fewer than 100,000 residents and include Bristol, Va., and Monticello, Minn.

Earlier this year Google installed a gigabit network in Kansas City, Mo., making the area a showcase for Internet service with speeds that clock in 100 times faster than a basic cable modem. The service is available for households.

Emanuel's proposal takes a different approach, as he is seeking to partner with private industry and universities.

The challenge for city officials will be to convince companies they will reap commercial benefits from participating in the initiative, said Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at the Yankee Group.

"There's substantial capital investment required to make high-speed fiber access viable on a large scale with the quality that enterprises need (for) their business operations," Rehbehn said. "So if the operators or the service providers do not have ... the business case to build the network, it's not clear to me a (request for proposal) asking them to come helps."

Tolva said city officials have been in contact with the area's three major providers of broadband services: Comcast, AT&T and RCN. These incumbents "have a role to play here," he said, although he noted that a small Internet service provider could participate in the initiative by leasing fiber laid down by a different company.

In a statement, Comcast said it shares "the city's goal of making Chicago a 21st century technology leader" and plans to "review the RFI and determine our next steps."

AT&T also offered support without committing to any specific investment.

On the Wi-Fi side, the plan to provide free access in dozens of public spaces is a scaled-down, more realistic version of Daley's vision. Tolva acknowledged that blanketing an entire city with Wi-Fi "is logistically difficult, if not impossible," given the equipment needed and the constraints of the technology. Modern wireless networks are more effective than Wi-Fi in providing the kind of ubiquitous coverage imagined under the old proposal.

By offering free, reliable Wi-Fi in public spaces, the city is seeking to focus on places where people congregate. Chicago-based SilverIP Communications, a company that provides high-speed fiber Internet to residents of luxury residential buildings, built out the Wi-Fi network in Millennium Park.

Ashkan Marsh, senior principal at SilverIP, said the service is designed to deliver speeds three times greater than 4G. The network should also accommodate big events, such as Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts at Millennium Park that can draw more than 10,000 people.

Marsh said the city contacted his firm about the Millennium Park project and the company agreed to make "a donation from SilverIP to the city in the form of a grant." Financial terms of the arrangement are confidential, he said.

"We're patriotic and we thought there's no reason why Chicago shouldn't have a breakthrough, fantastic, superfast wireless network," Marsh said.

Source: Chicago Tribune