Tri-Cities Voters Reject Broadband

Published April 2, 2003

Tri-Cities voters soundly rejected a $62 million municipal broadband network for cable television, telephone and high-speed Internet access.

All sought permission to establish a cable television system and to own and operate a public telephone utility. Officials and citizen supporters blamed the SBC and Comcast campaigns against the measure.

Despite the vote, St. Charles and Batavia might consider providing the service to business parks to keep and attract business, officials said.

The mood was glum at broadband headquarters in the bar at the Geneva American Legion where the citizen group, Fiber for our Future, gathered with various officials of Batavia, Geneva and St. Charles.

They noshed on raw vegetables and buffalo wings while watching returns of 60 percent against, 40 percent in favor.

“If the 40 percent who voted in favor of it became subscribers, that would be enough to make it successful,” said Ed Hodges, chairman of the citizen group.

A dozen bottles of Chandon champagne sat in a bucket of melting ice, and though they lost, the Fiber for Our Future group still was ready to open them up.

“I would raise a glass to toast the people in our group. These guys did a great job,” Hodges said. “Comcast and SBC spent a lot of money and we didn’t,” said Peter Collins, Geneva information systems supervisor said. “Fiber for our Future had $3,000 to spend, all donations–they did a hell of a job. The network we were proposing would have buried theirs.”

“We were out-manned, out-resourced, out-spent and out-maneuvered,” Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns said. “Our campaign was rooted in truth, our opponents’ in anything but.”

Burns referred to the companies’ survey and ad campaign directed against the cities’ broadband. The cities’ property taxes would have backed the system’s financing, but the loans were to be repaid through subscriber fees. SBC and Comcast warned voters their property taxes would be in jeopardy.

Andrea Brands, a spokeswoman for SBC disputed supporters’ version.

“What happened here is that the voters voted what is best for them,” she said. “No risk of increase taxes. Sixty-two million dollars is a very expensive network, when there is ample service available.”

Geneva officials might consider asking again in a year if there is enough support from the community to revisit the issue, Burns said.

St. Charles Mayor Sue Klinkhamer said the council would look at providing broadband to its business and industrial park, areas SBC and Comcast do not serve.

“We’re going to lose our big businesses if we don’t,” Klinkhamer said. “They will go somewhere else if we do not offer it to them. We’ll be deciding this in the next couple of months. The council may decide to do the whole program.”

Batavia Mayor Jeff Schielke said they did not have enough time to educate voters. “Broadband is a concept to keep alive and well … to keep the threat of municipal competition to private providers,” Schielke said. “If they jack with the rates or … if they don’t provide good quality service in the Tri-Cities area, municipal broadband is not an idle threat. The potential is always there.”

Schielke said Batavia might also provide broadband service to its own business park, as St. Charles is planning.

“I guess I’m not terribly surprised that the broadband referendums are coming out this way,” said St. Charles resident Bob Buchta, who opposed municipal broadband. Buchta owns Ami Communications, a small telecommunications company in Geneva.

“I think that the cities were all well-intended … but I felt from beginning that this sense of urgent demand for municipal broadband was somewhat manufactured,” Buchta said.

As for SBC and Comcast campaigning against it, the cities “were getting a taste of what it would be like to compete against large, publicly held companies,” Buchta said.

Brenda Schory is a report for the Kane County Chronicle.