Aldermen eye fiber-optic network as moneymaker

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Three years ago Mayor Rahm Emanuel dangled the use of light poles, streets, alleys, freight tunnels and unused city-owned fiber to jumpstart his predecessor’s failed plan to establish high-speed Internet access to underserved Chicago neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces.

Emanuel hoped to succeed where former Mayor Richard M. Daley failed by leveraging his plan to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and by dividing the city into 15 commercial corridors with a separate competition in each zone.

On Wednesday, four of the City Council’s most powerful aldermen tried to re-open the debate with three major goals: provide “cheaper high-speed Internet service to consumers,” make Chicago’s business community “more competitive,” and to generate sorely needed revenue.

Chicago owns and operates a series of high-speed fiber-optic lines installed below ground by the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications, the CTA and other agencies along CTA rail lines.

The underground freight tunnels beneath the Loop that infamously flooded with water in 1992 can also support a broadband network. City light poles and the rooftops of government buildings could also be used to support a wireless network.

All of that and more will now be the subject of City Council hearings, thanks to the resolution introduced by Finance Committee Chairman Edward Burke (14th), Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis (25th), Economic Capital and Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney (39th) and Vice Mayor Marge Laurino (39th).

“These hearings would be a fact-finding mission to help the City Council fully understand the size and scope of Chicago’s fiber-optic infrastructure and explore how it could be shared or expanded to raise revenue for city coffers while making our city more competitive,” Burke said in a press release.

Laurino called it an “attempt to both improve Chicago’s technology base for consumers and businesses and provide Chicago with a significant new source of revenue.”

The search for revenue comes at a time when a combined, $30 billion pension crisis at the city and public schools has dropped Chicago’s bond rating to just two levels above junk status.

Tunney noted the relatively tiny city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has built an 8,000-mile fiber network that supports 60,000 residential and 4,500 business customers.

“A Chicago broadband network would be an asset that could be monetized. During these challenging economic times, we need to examine all options to help balance the budget,” Tunney said in the release.

The aldermen zeroed-in on the revenue potential of Chicago’s fiber-optic network at an action-packed meeting that was the last before old legislation dies and the new City Council is sworn in.

Before a long goodbye to retiring and defeated members, aldermen cracked down on problem nightclubs, dried up the market for stolen catalytic converters, authorized an advertising contract for so-called “People Plazas” and signed off on a $415,000 settlement with an inebriated woman who was sexually assaulted by two former Chicago Police officers.

The City Council also approved Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan to provide city services in an array of foreign languages and create a municipal identification program.

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