Chicago to launch citywide wi-fi

Following a recent announcement from New York City, that it was working to expand its broadband infrastructure – Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced a similar initiative for Chicago. The Mayor wants Chicago to be the top city for high-speed broadband access in America. The city has launched the “Chicago Broadband Challenge,” and will be seeking input from the public on how to provide greater broadband access.

At a public event in Chicago’s Millennium Park, the Mayor gathered with several local technology companies to discuss how they plan to build a 21st century infrastructure for Chicagoans. “Chicago will be one of the most connected cities in the world,” said Mayor Emanuel. “The establishment of a world-class broadband network in Chicago will create thousands of jobs and dramatically improve educational opportunities, economic development, health care services, and general quality of life throughout the city.”

The plan will be rolled out in two phases and includes asking for private partners to bring in gigabit internet to 15 emerging business zones outside of the Loop and will also add free wi-fi to all city parks. The city is also considering leasing its own infrastructure, specifically unused fiber lines to attract providers.

The broadband challenge website is essentially an RFP put out by the city asking local institutions, businesses and stakeholders to submit formal proposals or simply offer their ideas. City officials hope that by expanding access new businesses and jobs will come to the Chicago area, fostering greater economic growth.

The initiative follows another announced last week, which will provide residents with an Open311 system to report municipal issues or get information. City residents will be able to track the submission of their 311 requests through an online portal and ticketing system. The City’s 311 call center receives an average of two million service calls annually, and nearly 40 percent of the most requested service calls into 311 are either duplicates or residents calling to check on the status of a request. The Mayor put the online portal in place to cut back on duplicate calls and save time for both residents and 311 responders. The next phase of the Open311 program will also include an enhanced ChiTEXT tool, which will give Chicagoans the ability to submit and track service requests via smartphone text messaging.

The Open311 technology was developed through a partnership between the City’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) and Code for America, and was funded in part by the Smart Chicago Collaborative. Last year, the Chicago City Council approved $300,000 in grant funding from the Smart Chicago Collaborative to pay for the costs associated with the Code for America fellowship program to develop the open online interface for the 311 system.

As CivSource has reported, municipal initiatives to build out broadband access like the one announced today in Chicago have been under attack from incumbent telecommunications providers which see city backed efforts as unfair competition. The RFP from Chicago indicates an interest to work with these private sector providers such that they offer solutions, but it also appears that the city will move forward without them. At the time of this writing, no bills have come up in Illinois as they have in other states to block such broadband expansion activities.