Illinois Voters Re-Reject Muni Fiber Bid

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The second time around at the ballot box was just as unsuccessful for fiber fans in Batavia, St. Charles and Geneva, Ill., where voters voted down a proposal for a three-community municipal telecommunications overbuild.

For more than three years, advocacy group Fiber for our Future has lobbied voters to support a government overbuild that would serve roughly 85,000 homes just west of Chicago.

The communities already operate municipal utilities, and broadband backers tried to convince voters that the cities should piggyback telecommunications products onto that existing infrastructure.

$62M PRICE TAG

A tri-city broadband initiative would cost an estimated $62 million, according to study materials published to support the last vote, held in April 2003.

A municipal broadband operation with a fiber-to-the-premises architecture would provide an economic development tool to the region, Fiber to the Future argued, because communities would be able to sell high-speed services to existing and relocating businesses.

It could provide residential services with prices lower than currently charged to local residents, they claimed.

But the measure ran up against powerful foes: incumbents Comcast Corp. and SBC Communications Inc. Both ran in 2003 ads questioning the financial viability of the project, which was to be funded by general-obligation bonds. The incumbents warned consumers that taxes could be raised to support the telecommunications operation if it failed to gain enough customers to be self-sustaining.

The 2003 measure failed in all three communities.

Instead of dropping the issue, broadband supporters brought the matter to the electorate again this past Nov. 2 — but this time, the proposal would have funded the project exclusively through private investment, with no tax liability.

This version boasted the support of Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke and that community’s Chamber of Commerce. The business groups in Geneva and St. Charles, however, declined to endorse the measure.

Broadband supporters hoped to boost community support by pointing out Comcast’s price hikes. In one year, they noted, the price of expanded basic service, a converter and one premium service had jumped from $48.47 to $65.83. (A Comcast spokeswoman noted the company completed an upgrade and increased channels substantially during that period).

They also cited Comcast’s bid to buy The Walt Disney Co. as an example of the company’s lack of local focus. The pro-broadband election materials said Comcast couldn’t seem to afford to offer senior-citizen discounts, but could offer billions to try to buy out a competitor.

PRO-COMCAST ADS

With the tax issue removed, this time Comcast’s anti-initiative ads focused on the range of products it already offers in the localities, as well as its community-affairs initiatives.

The products Comcast now offers in the area include high-speed Internet access, digital cable, video-on-demand and digital video recorders, spokeswoman Pat Keenan said. Voice-over-Internet protocol telephony will be introduced next year.

“We’ve delivered on our promises,” she said.

Comcast also provides business solutions, she added.

THREE TIMES NO

St. Charles voters said no to the latest initiative three times, as the ballot measure asked them to vote separately on a municipal cable TV service and on whether the town should build or operate a telephone system. The race was closest in Batavia, where the measure failed by just over 700 votes, according to unofficial results.

Backers noted that the proposal needed the support of all three communities to be viable.

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