Add Jacksonville, Ill., to the list of small municipalities that want to harness the power of expanded broadband connectivity.
The Jacksonville City Council has established an informal group to look into installing a fiber-to-the-home and fiber-to-business network. Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard and Bruce Giffin, general manager of the Illinois Rural Electric Cooperative, are spearheading the effort.
In an email to Government Technology, Ezard explained that he’s constantly looking at new ways to attract and retain people to Jacksonville.
“If fiber to businesses and homes is the edge we need to keep up with today and tomorrow, then we need to look down that path and work together for this to become a reality,” he said.
Jacksonville already has broadband in some areas. For example, the Illinois Electric Cooperative provides wireless and fiber-based Internet service to 4,000 accounts. But Ezard’s groups wants to reach as many of the city’s approximate 20,000 residents and businesses as possible.
Giffin told Government Technology that the idea is to build the network without raising taxes. He and the group will cast a wide net to find the best way to achieve that goal, including speaking to providers and other local governments. Giffin added that all possibilities are on the table, including partnering with various entities as appropriate.
But formalizing the city's fiber committee and holding public meetings about broadband expansion won't happen until Jacksonville officials have done enough research on the issue to warrant a proper discussion, Giffin explained.
Geography and population density are the two main challenges facing increased connectivity in Jacksonville, according to Giffin. Located west of Springfield, Ill., Jacksonville is surrounded by cornfields and bean fields, featuring mostly single-family homes and a few small community colleges.
“Jacksonville is a very lightly-populated region, so providing services of any kind – running a school system, keeping a municipality going, operating an electric system or an Internet system – is challenging because you don’t have lots of people per mile,” Giffin said.
As a result, Jacksonville’s informal fiber team is talking with organizations and businesses about ways to finance a high-speed network that would encompass all of Jacksonville and South Jacksonville, an adjoining municipality. Through those partnerships, Giffin believes it could generate the operating capital to start a new fiber network.
After the financing is figured out, the group would then take a look at how the governance structure of the network. But it appears, at least in the early stages, that Jacksonville wants an open fiber network any incumbent provider can offer service on.
“The model has to be able to accommodate any legitimate Internet service provider,” Griffin said, adding that “anybody who can legitimately say that they can light up fiber from central offices to consumers’ premises” is what the city is interested in.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.