Chicago's CivicNet Takes Step Closer To Reality - InformationWeek

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Chicago's CivicNet Takes Step Closer To Reality

Plans for what's believed to be the most ambitious public-private fiber optic network in the United States are about to gain significant focus. Officials behind Chicago's CivicNet, a citywide initiative to essentially build a new broadband infrastructure for government, businesses, and residents, this month will begin reviewing hundreds of submissions from interested technology providers.

Companies from WorldCom Inc. to Lucent Technologies Inc. to SBC Communications Inc.'s Ameritech Corp. have replied to a request for information, offering their own takes on how the project, first announced six months ago, might unfold. The city plans to use the $25 million it spends each year on voice and data communications to become an "anchor tenant" for a high-speed network to be built out by one or more lead technology vendors. Officials intend for that network to run down every street in Chicago, thereby providing high-speed access to anyone who wants it. And the benefits to the city itself could be substantial. Project officials say CivicNet would streamline the city government by aggregating 2,000 facilities on a single network; allow institutional transactions to be conducted online; promote economic development and job growth; and provide a new avenue for hiring and training city employees.

Telecom providers have tended to shy away from such large-scale metropolitan area networks because of mammoth costs and sketchy revenue projections. But Chicago officials are betting that the guaranteed revenue from the city and the line-up of customers it hopes to assemble, combined with easy access to city-owned facilities, will help the project succeed where similar efforts have floundered. "What we want to do is tip the business case so that it does now pay," says Doug Power, the project's director and an assistant commissioner with the city's general services department.

Power says that while the preference would be for a single vendor to take the lead in constructing the network citywide, the city is prepared to divide the project geographically among multiple lead vendors. Either way, Power says the responses to the request for information will go a long way toward determining not only the level to which companies want to be involved, but the viability of the project. "There has to be a way to make this work," Power says. "We'll tinker with the model if need be." A decision on vendors is expected to be made by the end of this year, and the majority of the construction could take from two to eight years, Power says.

No matter how long it takes, Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University, says Chicago is way ahead of other U.S. cities attempting to develop metropolitan area networks because its effort is based on a cooperative citywide policy framework, rather than the mere construction of a network.

Mambretti, who has been involved in the project as a director on the Mayor's Council of Technology Advisors, says the fact that CivicNet is happening in Chicago rather than one of the acknowledged technology centers isn't a surprise. He points out that Chicago not only is the biggest transportation hub in the country-and fiber optic lines often are laid beside railroad tracks-but it also is home to the world's most voluminous Internet exchange, Ameritech's Network Access Point. "It's only natural that it become a hub for communications," Mambretti says.

Yankee Group analyst Mary Regan describes CivicNet's public-private approach as a bold initiative that's unlike anything else she has seen. But Regan says that whether other cities ultimately look to CivicNet as a model for their own metropolitan area networks hinges on the project becoming more than a good idea. "It remains to be seen whether they get this off the ground."

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