City of Jacksonville Approves I3 Broadband Project

By Benjamin Cox on August 4, 2020 at 9:19am

The Jacksonville City Council has approved a measure to bring fiber Internet options to the door in the city. In a 8-1 vote with 1 member voting ‘present’ on the issue, the city agreed to a memorandum of understanding with I3 that will cost the city $2.5 million. I3 will use the city’s money to help fund a nearly $18 million infrastructure project to lay fiber optic Internet cable through the entirety of town. In return, the city’s buildings along with several key buildings in town will receive free fiber Internet access. The city will also receive several strands of what are called “dark fiber” lines for future upgrades.

Depending upon a customer’s purchase, I3 will offer between 1 and 10 gigabit Internet speeds. City IT Department Head Scott Roberts sought help from Yates Engineering Services of Bloomington, Indiana to go over the deal for the city to see if it was a sound deal to enter into for long term: “The president of the engineer firm reviewed the MOU and his gut check essentially was this was a reasonable deal. He had seen [in the past] cities pay more for less, and he did not have a problem with it.” Roberts said that he had been working the mayor’s office and the Jacksonville Regional Development Corporation, and Morgan County Planner Dusty Douglas since 2014 intermittently to bring similar projects to Jacksonville.

Two alderman pushed back against the idea for very separate reasons. Ward 3 Alderman Brandon Adams had a heated exchange with Mayor Andy Ezard and Alderman Jeff Hopkins believing that the city should have consulted with an engineering consultant to possibly get a better deal. Hopkins said during the meeting that the information that Roberts had brought to him about the project over the last week had satisfied his own personal wish to receive professional advice before making his own decision.

Adams asked for several motions including another motion to table the issue and a motion for the city to receive a right of first refusal should I3 sell to a larger broadband company. Both motions died due to a lack of a second. Adams said that opportunity for having I3 to the door for some residents did not present affordability to low-income homes.

Ward 2 Alderwoman Lori Large Oldenettel who voted ‘no’ on the project said that the city council is sending mixed signals to residents and department heads: “We’ve asked a lot of our department heads to give us bids for major projects. We didn’t hold ourselves in the same regard to get 3 bids so we could take the lowest bid. We took the only bid [for this project]. Even though I respect the work of the [Special Studies] Committee and the other people that worked on the project, I still feel like we should have maybe gotten us some different perspectives to see what other maybe local businesses or other people who would have come to Jacksonville – and see what other options are on the table before we [spend] $2.5 million. We have asked so many of our department heads to reduce spending and to eliminate major projects. I was just concerned that perhaps this wasn’t the right time to do it, because every [other] project we don’t do now, we are just moving down the road.”

Oldenettel says she still feels like it’s a worthwhile project for Jacksonville but due to the timing and the amount of money, she could not vote for it.

City Special Studies Chairman and Ward 5 Alderman Steve Warmowski says the next step for I3 is simply to start laying lines as soon as possible: “I3 has already started configuring their network, so they are going to be doing some back-end engineering. I think in a couple of months, people will start seeing trucks putting in fiber in neighborhoods. Previously in discussions, I3 said that about 6 weeks after you see a truck in your neighborhood installing fiber, you should be able to call them up and get Internet to your house.”

Warmowski says the I3 option will now help with e-learning, telecommuting for jobs, and possibly help attract new business to Jacksonville.

Warmowski also recently posted a copy of an example bill from I3 on his Jacksonville Ward 5 Facebook Page: “I had them send me a sample bill for their basic package, which is $49 a month. When you look at the bill, it’s $49. There is no add-ons, no modem fees, there’s no this fee or that. It’s just straight up billing. There was also a recent story on a Springfield blog about how they recently upped their speeds. When they originally came to town, they said their top speeds were going to be 1 gig in Jacksonville, now they are saying it’s going to be 10. Their speeds are going to go up to the next level. It’s going to be great for businesses.”

Warmowski said during the meeting that it put Jacksonville’s Internet infrastructure in line and in some cases ahead of smaller, rural towns like Bluffs and Waverly where fiber Internet options already exist.

Jacksonville Mayor Andy Ezard said last week prior to the vote that he wanted the city to move on the project because the scope of it would provide equal opportunity across the city, and he also said that the build out of the project would be completed possibly within the next 18 months.