Chicago plans citywide net

Computer World –

It may mean snaking optical fiber through sewer lines and old tunnels or burying conduits in public transportation rights-of-way, but the city of Chicago is developing plans to build a high-speed metropolitan-area network designed to link government offices, businesses, schools and neighborhoods.

Last month, the city issued a formal request for information to gauge technology vendors' interest in the proposed CivicNet project and to test the business viability of the network. Responses are due by Jan. 19, and a more formal request for proposals is scheduled to follow in early spring.

Joe Mambretti, director of the International Center for Advanced Internet Research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and a key member of the CivicNet infrastructure committee, said the project is aimed at creating a next-generation optical MAN -- essentially, a wide-area network that can carry data, voice and video throughout the greater Chicago area.

The network, as envisioned, would provide broadband access to government agencies, businesses, medical facilities and educational institutions, Mambretti said.

Development of CivicNet will depend on interested vendors and user companies working with the Mayor's Council of Technology Advisors, a group chaired by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley that includes representatives from local government, business and academia.

"Technology comes from the private sector, and that's why in the early stages of planning CivicNet we decided to put public and private together," Daley said last week in an interview with Computerworld.

But "the city does not wish to be in the provider business," Mambretti said. "[The city] is basically saying, 'Here are the requirements,' which gives the provider and vendor community the opportunity to respond."

Mary Regan, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, said what makes Chicago's approach unique is that it's taking a position similar to an anchor tenant in a shopping mall. The city is not only offering its rights-of-way for fiber runs to participating network builders and service providers, but it's also willing to transfer the $30 million it currently pays in annual telecommunications fees to vendors that participate in the initiative.

Too Soon to Tell Cost

As of last week, hundreds of companies had responded to the informational request via a Web site devoted to the project (, said CivicNet project director Doug Power, who works at Chicago's Department of General Services.

But Power said that it's too early to tell how much it will cost to develop CivicNet, which is expected to take 10 years to complete.

Power likened the CivicNet plans to projects in which local governments build roads, waterworks, sewers and airports to entice companies to move in or to prevent them from going elsewhere. In today's e-business era, he said, big cities like Chicago need to provide access to high-speed networks.

According to Daley, companies locating or expanding in Chicago "are always asking about the type of telecommunications infrastructure that's available."

Power said the network would be phased in over time to carry all city government and institutional data, voice and video communications. Providers partticipating in the initiative could then offer a variety of information services over the same fiber to businesses and residential users, he said.

The CivicNet project "provides a way to aggregate need and supply," said Michael Silverman, a partner at the Chicago office of law firm Duane, Morris & Heckscher LLP. "It's a great use of the city's ability to bring together various constituencies."

Chicago officials hope to sign contracts with vendors by the end of next year, Power said.

He added that it's unlikely that any single vendor could handle the job of building and operating the network, which is expected to be based on Ethernet standards.

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