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Byron Hetzler, The Southern

CARBONDALE – As Carbondale became Southern Illinois’s first “Gigabit City,” there was lots of talk about how the faster Internet speeds at competitive prices could be a boon for economic development.

But how exactly does the city turn its fiber-optic network into tangible results that put people to work?

Cities with gigabit infrastructure can help grow a small community when it’s marketed as part of a package deal, experts say.

“Economic development is the thing we tend to go to, but not necessarily the only thing cities should think about,” said Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works with cities that want to have fast, affordable broadband. “I think the opportunity to have improved tele-health and education and transportation and e-government and participatory democracy, all of these things are important to success.”

She pointed to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where officials during the past 10 years have worked to change the city’s image from rundown and passed over to a happening place to live, work and start a business.

“They don’t just sell their gig,” Socia said. “They sell their city, the quality of life, outdoor activities, music and art happenings, good restaurants, and their city’s life. It’s so much more than just the gig.”

Socia said becoming a “gigabit city” probably isn’t enough on its own to make a town competitive for new businesses and residents, but it can be that little something extra that tips the scale.

In Carbondale, Frontier Communications, through a partnership with the city and SIU, recently began offering ultra-fast Internet speed to residents and businesses, and Clear Wave Communications began offering commercial services in 2012 to Illinois’s lower-third counties.

A gig offers speeds of 1,000 megabits per second to download and upload. Comparatively, a more typical residential service provider may offer speeds of 25 megabits per second download, and five megabits per second upload.

The enhanced speeds were made available when Frontier and its partners were able to leverage a $1.5 million grant from Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Gigabit Challenge. Even though Clearwave already was offering a commercial service, the addition of providers could help drive down costs for the expensive service, said Interim Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams.

Williams said the service has since been expanded from the Route 13 corridor to Evolve downtown to as far out as Makanda, where a development is under way. So far, Williams said, it’s his understanding that a few residential customers have taken advantage of enhanced services, as well as some doctors and other businesses.

The city is working on a broadband innovation plan, Williams said, as advances through an “America’s Best Cities” competition sponsored by Frontier, Dish Network, The Weather Channel and CoBank to stimulate economic revitalization in small towns and cities. Carbondale already has received $50,000 for advancing as a quarter-finalist, and is in the running to ultimately win $3 million.

But while it’s a sought-after status, the path forward for a “Gigabit City” in terms of drawing new businesses isn’t entirely clear. That’s because in many ways the speeds offered are a futuristic offering -- while there are some high-tech companies who want it and seek it out, the speeds aren’t really necessary at this stage for the average residential user, or even many businesses.

“I think there are a lot of uses, and also a lot of questions,” Williams said. “Those questions shed light on challenges with gigabit, and if you poll nationally, the majority of people will tell you they’re still trying to figure out what the potential is for gigabit.”

The mayor of Mount Vernon, Washington, a town about the size of Carbondale with a population of 32,600, said her city has been able to make some economic development gains in the past decade thanks to a fiber-optic network they began building underground in the early 2000s. Mayor Jill Boudreau said the project started as a means to connect the school district, health care system, hospitals and city and county governments.

Some plans were implemented, but not many and really slowly because of what she described as a lack of tangible interest by the previous administration. She said she’s made it a priority to promote the service since becoming mayor three years ago. In Mount Vernon, Washington, the city owns the network, and nine partnering providers offer the service to businesses that want it. It is not offered at this stage to residential customers, she said, but could be in the future.

In recent years, she said, the city has been able to draw a handful of tech companies from the Seattle area that needed the high-speed Internet capacity but liked the idea of building shop where the cost-of-living was lower, the traffic was lighter and the parking is free.

The companies that have landed there are relatively small, employing between about five and 25 people, but the pay is a huge benefit to the region, generally starting at around $70,000, she said.

“We’re working on strategy to recruit more out of Seattle market,” she said, adding that the strategy to do that is to offer up the amenities of rural living, such as, in Mount Vernon’s case, one can go salmon fishing at the lake before heading into work.

“For us, it’s about being able to draw real living-wage jobs that are paying the wages that elevate our rural community,” she said.

Molly.Parker@TheSouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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