Internet use gains speed on South and West sides, but many still can't afford it

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 05/30/2014, 12:58am

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There’s good news and bad news about Internet access for the poorest and most isolated Chicagoans.

The good news: Research to be unveiled Friday in Washington shows federal stimulus money, cheaper Internet payment-plan promotions and the increased use of smartphones helped South and West siders obtain greater and speedier Internet access in their homes.

Indeed, Chicagoans in the nine neighborhoods that received a combined $7 million “Smart Communities” federal grant increased their use of the Internet from any location to 78 percent, and inside their homes to 56 percent — a change that was 9 percentage points more than other Chicago neighborhoods from 2008 to 2013.

Also, the nine Smart Communities were 10 to 12 percentage points ahead of other city neighborhoods during that period in accessing the Internet to look for jobs, health topics and mass transit schedules, said Karen Mossberger, a digital divide guru and former UIC professor now at Arizona State University, in advance of detailing her new research to federal policymakers.

Mossberger, who heads ASU’s School of Public Affairs, said the federal money helped to spread the word about technology and offered free Internet training in the nine neighborhoods: Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Englewood, West Englewood, Auburn-Gresham, Chicago Lawn, West Lawn, Gage Park and West Elsdon.

She also credited as possible influences people’s increased familiarity with smartphones and the Smart Communities program’s training and outreach. The study included controls to account for other changes, such as a neighborhood’s gentrification.

“These are the kinds of changes that can really make a difference for people and for these communities, both in terms of employment and economic development,” Mossberger said. “People are more likely to engage in learning and in civic activities when they have regular Internet access.”

The federal stimulus money ran out at the end of 2012. Mossberger believes some kind of stimulus needs to continue, and that researchers should find out more about whether the increased Internet use is helping people get better access to health care, better jobs and other benefits.

Despite the good news, 1 in 3 residents in the nine neighborhoods who took Internet training still has no in-home Internet access, mainly because they say they cannot afford it.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, efforts to set up a high-speed Internet network inch forward even as two of the main parties in the initial effort sue each other in court for non-payment of services.

Comdesco, a Chicago-based broadband network planning, design and consulting company, has sued Gigabit Squared, a Cincinnati-based broadband Internet builder, seeking to be paid for $397,689.81 worth of work on a super-high-speed broadband network on the South Side that went bust, as well as work on another project Gigabit Squared was working on in Seattle that cratered in January.

Comdesco claims its work included designing and engineering fiber routes throughout the South Side, surveying dozens of building sites, installing wireless radio and other gear on buildings, and negotiating agreements and acquiring office space in anticipation of Gigabit Squared’s ultra-high-speed Internet access project that never happened.

The state of Illinois is fighting to get back $2 million in Illinois Jobs Now! capital funding from Gigabit Squared, alleging that Gigabit Squared “lied repeatedly” about its intentions and may have spent only $250,000 for legitimate purposes, said David Roeder, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, which issued the grant.

Comdesco principal Laurance Lewis, a native of the Woodlawn neighborhood, said “it’s disappointing and sad” that the South Side has yet to benefit from the ultra-high-speed Internet project that was funded by Chicago and Illinois taxpayer dollars.

“Someone could step into (Gigabit Squared’s) shoes now and take advantage of a good opportunity,” Lewis said. “Everything is ready to go. We already did most of the heavy lifting.”

Gigabit Squared has now counter-sued Comdesco in federal court in Ohio, seeking nearly $13 million in damages for allegedly failing to fulfill Internet equipment and installation work at Mercy Family Health Center at Oakwood Shores apartment complex at 3753 S. Cottage Grove Ave.

Comdesco’s Lewis countered that “(Gigabit Squared’s) lawsuit is a pathetic attempt at diverting attention from the reality of the situation.

“Companies, the state and citizens trusted Gigabit Squared and they betrayed that trust,” he said. “And now, we are all left scratching our heads at what they were thinking all along. We are just trying to recoup our losses.”

“As we speak, multiple other vendors owed money by Gigabit Squared are reaching out to us to join in our lawsuit,” Lewis said. “As far as Mercy Hospital, Comdesco is the only entity that performed on the project.”

Two community groups continue to work to launch a Wi-Fi network in Woodlawn.

Though the launch starts small — a free 200-megabit-per-second Wi-Fi connection in a radius from 61st to 65th streets and from King Drive to Cottage Grove — the project has lined up router giant Cisco Systems and its cloud networking group, formerly called Meraki, to provide the connectivity “plumbing” for an eventual communitywide network.

The organizers have identified sites for two network operating centers and have set up plans to provide digital literacy training at a new computer lab for residents of Woodlawn Park, a mixed-income community in the 6300 block of South Cottage Grove Avenue.

The long-range vision is to support efforts to create a gigabit-speed fiber-optic and wireless network in as many as 15 innovation zones throughout the city, says Pierre A. Clark, who is spearheading the project as head of the Woodlawn Broadband Expansion Partnership and the Southside Broadband Expansion Collaborative.