Mar 122014

COAL Commentary Logo SmallMarch 12, 2014 

Once Again, the old ‘Bait and Switch’ on Our Community?

In September 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the launch of the Chicago Broadband Challenge, a unique initiative to engage the public to secure Chicago’s position as one of the digital capitals of the country and the city with the greatest availability of ultra-high-speed broadband in the United States. The Broadband Challenge is a plan to create the infrastructure for high-speed Internet throughout the city. Initial plans included outfitting 15 commercial corridors with gigabit-speed Internet.

This plan has three main goals: 1) Ultra-fast gigabit-bit speed internet, 2) Extending low-cost, high-speed internet to under-served areas, 3) Free WI-FI access in all public parks and other spaces.

As reported, the City’s Deputy Chief of Policy, Kate Yager stated, “This is really a huge economic development initiative”.  She believes providing access to gigabit-speed Internet — which is 100 times faster than basic broadband — will encourage business creation, growth, expansion and relocation.

So there you have it; the Mayor wants to move forward with gigabit-speed internet as a means of encouraging business creation, growth, expansion and relocation.

And COAL agrees with this plan to drive economic development.

Now back to the Mayor’s 2012 plans for outfitting 15 commercial corridors throughout the City: Fast forward to 2014 and the areas have been reduced from 15 to 7 and only three areas are on the City’s Southside and zero areas on the City’s Westside.

Even more telling is that selected areas such as River North, the Loop, West Loop, and Ravenswood are areas already experiencing moderate to significant business creation, growth and expansion. In other words, the south and west sides, the very areas of our City requiring creative ways to nurture and expand economic revitalization,  the very areas of the City experiencing the highest unemployment and under-employment rates,  are being left out of immediate plans.

And this is where COAL and many within our Community part ways with the Mayor on his plan.

Why the reduction and the selection of these areas? The Mayor’s people will tell you that the City slashed that number after it determined that only those seven zones had sufficient fiber and other assets available to support demand in those areas. But therein lies the problem – the plan will build on areas that are already technologically ahead of under-served areas and therefore those under-served areas (read that as south and west side communities) will forever be caught in a cycle of playing catch up and consequently, by default, will  not be as desirable or competitive in attracting business development and expansion.  Clearly this is a problem.  And including areas around IIT and the University of Chicago does not mitigate the issue as we see it.

COAL’s position is that current plans should have an emphasis on the very areas that are most in need of economic revitalization and that we do not accept that the City had to start with areas that are already technologically ahead. It may be an easier lift and/or less costly for the seven selected areas, however, if the Mayor’s goal is to maximize the return on invested monies and have the greatest economic impact, then areas of the south and west sides should be prioritized ahead of River North, the Loop and other selected areas.  Additionally, if the Mayor is truly interested in promoting economic revitalization of the City’s African American areas, then he could easily include additional requirements that make their inclusion feasible (i.e. including the installation of fiber and other assets as a part of the plan and resultant project(s)).

But let’s not stop at the Broadband Challenge.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pat Quinn traveled to the White House where President Barack Obama formally announced Chicago has been selected as the home of a new $320 million digital manufacturing hub.

The lab, to be built on Goose Island, will provide a top-of-the-line research and development facility for digital technology companies of all sizes, and will be funded by a $70 million grant from the Defense Department, and $250 million in private and state funds.

The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute will be managed and run by Chicago-based UI Labs – a nonprofit research and development group led by the University of Illinois.

Built on Goose Island? Really? For those not familiar with the location, the whole area has been experiencing major economic revitalization over the past couple of decades. The question here is simple: was there any discussion of locating the lab on the south or west sides? And if there were discussions, how were areas with large African American populations eliminated from contention.

Is anyone sensing a pattern here?

If bridging the digital divide is of importance to the future of our community; if spurring economic development and revitalizing our neighborhoods are of major importance; if solving the twin issues of unemployment and underemployment are of major importance,  if the effective use of our tax dollars for the benefit of our community  and holding our elected officials accountable for looking out for our community’s health and well being is of critical importance……. then we must ask ourselves, as a community, if we can settle for our community continually being slighted.

COAL contends that we must challenge the decisions that are being made and fight to make the change required to create a new norm for us, our children and our Community.

The Issue ‘Part Deux’ 

On a closely related note… 

On October 16, 2012, Governor Pat Quinn held a press conference which included the Mayor’s Office, to announce that nine Chicago neighborhoods are the first beneficiaries of the Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge, a statewide competition to establish ultra-high speed broadband networks across Illinois. The state awarded $2 million in Illinois Jobs Now! capital funding to Gigabit Squared, which in partnership with Cook County, the city of Chicago and the University of Chicago, planned to deploy gigabit fiber and wireless in neighborhoods on Chicago’s mid-south side.

In the Governor’s own words: Illinois’ investment of $2 million will help support Gigabit Squared’s nationally renowned Gigabit Neighborhood Gateway Program (GNGP) to create jobs, improve neighborhood safety, enhance education and improve health care services.

What were the nine neighborhoods covered by this effort? Washington Park, South Shore, Grand Boulevard, Grand Crossing, Douglas, Oakland, Hyde Park, Kenwood and Woodlawn.

Fast forward to 2014 and we ask, where are the fiber networks and high-speed wireless for these neighborhoods? What is the status of the project? Are all nine neighborhoods still in play?

So, let’s make the connection:

If funds were targeted, via a joint initiative between the State, County, City and private entities, to deploy fiber networks in nine south side communities, and yet the Mayor’s Broadband Challenge did not select these south side areas because they did not have, in the Mayor’s rep’s words, ‘sufficient fiber and other assets available to support demand in those areas’, then COAL asks, as we all should ask, “what games are being played, where are the disconnects, why the lack of coordination, why the lack of planning where obvious synergies exist?”.

The Take-away:

African American communities are losing out even when funding exists and dollars are being awarded towards efforts that promote and support economic development – clearly these efforts can, should and must be targeted to the most under-served and opportunity deserving areas.

And, by the way:

Have any of you heard from your Alderman, your State Representative or State Senator, on these issues? Is the economic development of our communities a top focus on their respective or collective agendas? Have we made the economic development of our communities a top agenda item for our elected leaders and a measure of their effectiveness?

COAL strongly believes:

That we must let the Mayor, the Governor, and all of those elected to represent us, know, by any means necessary, that the current state of affairs is no longer acceptable.

The time to work seriously and collectively, to improve the state of our Community, is upon us…
Let’s Get to Work

Click here for a copy of COAL News March 2014 Issue 1.0.1

  3 Responses to “Coalition NEWS – Chicago Broadband Challenge Initiative”

  1. Well! I am glad to see that after twenty years of work in communities on neighborhood technology access issues including the broadband access expansion issue, work which by the way has been led by African-Americans in every one of those years, that African-American leadership is finally taking note of the importance to our communities of the most important economic development issue of the 21st century – the issue of broadband access and expansion and where that access and expansion happens. It is about time!

    There are some facts that you should know about all the plans that you discussed in your commentary – the plan to bring gigabit-speed access to South Side communities, the plan to leverage the power of gigabit speed connectivity as a community development tool for our communities, was not created by City Hall or corporate interests but by local residents in those communities who wanted to see those resources brought to the South Side of Chicago. No one was clamoring for the South Side to be the first recipient of the Illinois Gigabit Challenge funding. That selection happened because two people – of which I am one – pushed and organized for three years to make it happen. We organized Woodlawn first through our Woodlawn Broadband Expansion Partnership, organized the leadership, organized the stakeholders, built the use cases for our community, and made the case that of all the neighborhoods in the country that should be the starting point of the national GigaU gigabit expansion challenge, Woodlawn was the neighborhood and the model for the South Side and the rest of the city.

    The Mayor’s RFI challenge that he issued in 2012 was a direct result of our work in Woodlawn. The awarding of the 1st Illinois Gigabit Challenge grant of $2 million to Gigabit Squared was in the words of Governor Quinn, a direct result of our work. And when the footprint for the planned network was formally extended to the other eight Southside communities, it was two African-Americans who organized the Southside Broadband Expansion Collaborative NFP to extend the information and engagement about broadband access to those Southside communities, through meetings that included representatives from every one of those neighborhoods. But surprisingly, not attended by elected officials or the old-guard leadership of the African-American community, even though many of you were invited. I know, because I invited you.

    If you quoted my comments in the Chicago Reporter, you should also quote my remarks in the comments section, in which I state that we – African-Americans – have led the way in this town and throughout the country in activism around neighborhood technology access issues for more than twenty years. Through our work, along with that of such elected officials as State Representative Constance Howard, who chaired the Computer Committee in the Illinois house, the Eliminate The Digital Divide grant fund was created, which has funneled millions of dollars into community technology centers throughout the state, including Chicago. The organization I co-founded and still lead, the Chicago Digital Access Alliance Inc., created the “digital excellence” movement in Chicago which is highlighted in the city report, “The City That Networks: Transforming Community and Society Through Digital Excellence”, published in 2007 and available on the City of Chicago website. (Go to our website at for a link to the report). The ideas from that report, which we inspired and created, championed the digital excellence movement that led to Chicago’s Smart Communities and millions of dollars from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, the Smart Chicago Collaborative at the Chicago Community Trust, and led to the broadband expansion activity and movement of which I spoke earlier.

    That’s the history, friends, and you as African-Americans should be proud of it. And you should also be concerned about the future of neighborhood technology access in your communities, computers and technology resources in your schools, broadband gigabit speed access in your homes and businesses, because this issue – broadband access – is the hottest issue in the world right now. Cities all over the world are racing to install broadband access and wireless access and make it available to residents to jumpstart economic development, health care, educational expansion, and neighborhood safety initiatives. One real estate expert told us that broadband access would triple the land value in our neighborhoods over the next five years. And make no mistake about it – the issue of broadband expansion is part of a larger community development issue and about who will be living in areas that have broadband access over the next twenty years in Chicago.

    In Woodlawn, we are building a demonstration wi-fi network that will cover two blocks in Woodlawn, then all of Woodlawn, then all of the South Side. Many of you may have read about this work in the Chicago Sun Times or now in the Chicago Reporter. This network is being built, not by the City or corporate interests, but by African-American engineers and technologists who are bringing this resource to the South Side. We are leading the way as we have always led the way. You want to do something about the Mayor’s new RFQ where the network footprints were reduced from 15 areas to seven? You want to see broadband access happen in your communities, as we have been fighting for 3 years this round and 20 years all around? Help us! Get involved with the Southside Broadband Expansion Collaborative NFP. Help us develop the wireless network in Woodlawn and on the South Side. Give me a call. 312-970-0249. Our activists can tell you the whole story, because we wrote it and still lead it. Welcome to the fight, gentlemen. It’s about time.

    • Mr. Clark, excellent background on this issue and indeed we should be proud of your efforts and the efforts of others that have focused on this. As you are aware, one of our biggest challenges is communications across our community and that is a core part of COAL’s mission – to examine and illuminate issues critical to our community and to help in educating ourselves and the broader community.

      Just as important, and another key part of our mission, is to determine ways to move beyond the dialogue towards making real change happen. We do this by initiating our own projects/initiatives, partnering with others, and/or supporting the efforts of others that are doing good work.

      The key is that it takes all parts of our community, working together, on the things that we agree on and not letting the things that we differ on, get in our way.

      Finally, I will say that it is no better time than ‘point forward’ to come into the light on issues important to improving the quality of opportunity, the quality of preparedness and the quality of outcomes (expressed as ‘quality of life’) for the black community.

      I will contact you to set up a meeting next week to discuss this further.

      Craig Wimberly
      COAL – Public Policy

  2. Mr. Wimberly, we welcome the opportunity for a dialogue to craft an action agenda around this critical issue. Let me know the date, time and place.

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