Illinois Muni: Voted Down, Not Out - Multichannel

Illinois Muni: Voted Down, Not Out

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Voters in three suburban Chicago towns have rejected a joint telecommunications project, but elected officials in those communities said there might still be support for smaller-scale municipal broadband operations.

The towns of Batavia, St. Charles and Geneva each put an advisory measure on the ballot in April that asked residents if they supported a broadband system that would serve all three communities.

A consultant's report estimated that a joint operation reaching the three cities' combined 85,000 residents would cost $62 million to build.

The impetus was a lack of high-speed data services, especially for business applications. Comcast Corp. has upgraded its cable system in Batavia, but cable-modem service remains unavailable in the other two towns.

Comcast and digital subscriber line provider SBC Communications Inc. cranked up their advertising machines in the days leading up to the election, questioning the use of tax dollars to provide telecommunications services.

Each company ran commercials and sent fliers urging residents to reject a new city utility.

A Comcast ad warned consumers, "Don't gamble with tax dollars!" noting the project would be funded with general-obligation bonds.

"If it doesn't work out — you pay!" said the ad.

Another ad referred to "failed" municipal projects or ventures that had tapped into utility money to keep going. Opponents noted that some of those named are healthy ventures, such as Tacoma, Wash.'s municipal Click! Network.

SBC postcards repeatedly referred to the advisory measure as a "telecommunications tax."

Mayors of the three towns made public statements, throwing their political weight behind the project. Grassroots groups sprouted on both sides of the issue.

Ultimately, on April 1, voters in each city rejected the idea of municipal broadband, roughly 60% to 40%. "The election has given us pause," said Randy Recklaus, assistant city manager in Batavia. "Forty percent said they still want a telecommunications utility."

Election Day brought new aldermen to the leadership table, and the incumbents are waiting for them to make their opinions known on the issue, Recklaus said. "How we would proceed now is not clear," he said.

Broadband proponent groups have not struck their tents. One, the Tri-City Broadband Citizen Support group, still maintains its Web site, urging citizens to contact local officials to support municipal broadband.

The group will also continuing monitoring the service performance of SBC and Comcast "who put millions of dollars into scaring people into voting NO," according to the site.

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