University of Chicago, Gigabit Squared Partnership Highlighted at Broadband Communities Summit

An initiative to establish a gigabit-speed network in south side Chicago neighborhoods was featured as an Illinois success story in the making Tuesday during the annual Broadband Communities Summit in Dallas, Texas.

During a summit panel on creating partnerships for building fiber networks, William Towns, of the University of Chicago's Office of Civic Engagement and Gigabit Squared President Mark Ansboury discussed an ongoing plan to boost economic conditions surrounding the highly-touted campus.

“As a university, we're looking at how we can have influence on the communities that surround us,” Towns said.

While the campus is thriving, surrounding south side Chicago neighborhoods are struggling economically, according to Towns. Unemployment numbers are as high as 18 percent in the community of Woodlawn, just south of the university.

“We saw this around us, so it became clear that the university, if it were to really thrive as an anchor, really needed to extend itself outside of campus and see how we could take the knowledge and the business research, and really implement the effects on the community,” Towns said.

He added that the university's goal became to collaborate with different institutions to exchange knowledge and resources for the betterment of the campus and community alike.

With that, in stepped the opportunity to collaborate with Gig.U or the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project. It's a broad-based group of over 30 leading research universities from across the United States. Gig.U seeks to accelerate the deployment of ultra high-speed networks to leading universities and their surrounding communities.

Towns gave a prime example of how the lack of internet access was weighing on the local economy. The University of Chicago doesn't accept paper job application. With a workforce of 19,000 employees, many people were shut out of job opportunities.

“You have to have belief that there's brilliance within these communities,” Towns said. “It's just untapped. So we look at how we can provide reliable, high-speed internet service to these communities to stimulate entrepreneurial activities.”

But the University of Chicago wanted to go a step forward. Towns said it was calculated that the university spent about $1 billion each year on various office and medical supplies.

“We wanted to figure out how we could leverage that and spend more locally,” he said. “How do we work with community organizers and residents to form small businesses that could rely on high-speed internet to provide services.”

Through a partnership with Gigabit Squared, the University of Chicago was able to open the opportunity for partnerships with local businesses and smaller medical practices.

In collaboration with Gig.U, Gigabit Squared alotted $5 million for the project as part of the Gigabit Neighborhood Gateway Program. Gigabit Squared also was awarded $2 million through Gov. Pat Quinn's Gigabit Communities Challenge program. The project's first phase was expected to connect 4,825 businesses, school, healthcare providers and homes with gigabit-speed internet.

“This is not about creating the 21st Century model, but the 23rd, 24th, or 25th,” Towns said.

Ansboury echoed the value of community partnerships.

“What we're trying to do in this neighborhood gigabit program is work with communities looking to increase the capability and capacity for economic growth,” he said, adding that it's important to understand the community need before launching into such a project.

Ansboury said the partnership between Gigabit Squared, Gig.U and the University of Chicago was an example of changing the paradigm of a community.

“We're trying to create a win/win strategy,” Ansboury said. “We're not trying to create something cheap, make a lot of money and walk away. We're trying to create a model that works from a public and private perspective.”

Tags: Broadband Communities Summit, Gig.U, Gigabit Neighborhoods, gigabit squared, University of Chicago

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