Retro revival: whatever happened to Chicago Civic Net?

Whatever happened to Chicago’s Civic Net, the fiber project that was supposed to provide data and voice services to the city’s agencies, libraries, police and fire stations? Whatever happened to Chicago’s Civic Net, the fiber project that was supposed to provide data and voice services to the city’s agencies, libraries, police and fire stations?

I posted the RFP on 25 June 2003 when Muniwireless was barely a few weeks old, so this is one of the earliest public tenders on the website. The bidders were AT&T, SBC and the US subsidiary of Alcatel.

Click here to see my post and to download the RFP.

What triggered my memory was an article in the Chicago Tribune, an interview with Chris O’Brien of Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, about the Chicago municipal wireless broadband project. O’Brien says that Civic Net’s idea was ahead of its time and that it never went anywhere because of a severe contraction in the telecom industry. He thinks fiber is the real thing but the city’s role is only oversight of the project to make sure it goes into all neighborhoods.

I don’t agree with O’Brien that the city’s only role is oversight. In some cases, it is but not in others. It depends on the circumstances.

Sometimes the city should play a major role, as Amsterdam is doing in the CityNet project where the city is an investor together with ING Bank Real Estate and Draka. Chicago could have had a real fiber network today connecting agencies and libraries, and perhaps even rolling out Wi-Fi to various neighborhoods as a last mile solution using fiber as backhaul.

The Chicago fiber project was not ahead of its time. It was right on time. Now they’re late because they waited for the telecom industry.

If you know what happened to Civic Net, post your comment below.


  1. Esme – Thanks for your comments. I am definitely not saying that a city’s only role is in oversight – I am sorry that it came across that way. There is absolutely a role for aggressive intervention – I championed that when I was with Chicago and continue to do so, where appropriate, with Diamond’s clients. That decision, however, should be based, at least in part, on data and facts.

    Direct government intervention is best justified to address some kind of market failure, and cities need to understand whether there is a failure in the market for broadband services in their communities. Unfortunately, that data is hard to come by, which is why Diamond set out to create tools to mine various sources to paint an accurate, neighborhood-level picture. In my experience in Chicago, there is not a major market failure; you have pockets of the city where there are gaps, but much of Chicago is covered with multiple wired and wireless options at different price points. In that scenario, Chicago’s role should be to intervene to offer options for targeted geographies or market segments and provide aggressive oversight of private-sector initiatives like Sprint’s Wimax and AT&T’s fiber to the curb, ensuring that they are rolled out evenly, quickly and affordably. If they are not, the City should be prepared to intervene further.

    In terms of CivicNet, I continue to believe that it is the model for how governments should address shortages in fiber in their communities. At the time it was envisioned (and arguably today), there was a market failure for fiber in communities. The City put out an RFP and the responses were not going to do what we wanted done; the cost was extremely high and the network would not have met fiber goals. I say that it was mis-timed because there was no will on the part of the providers to offer a response that we could work with, mostly because of the economic realities of the industry at the time. To be more blunt, their was an attitude on the part of telecom providers that they should fight to win it, but fight even harder to kill it. In the end, they were successful at the latter.

    I hope this clarifies your questions, and thanks for your excellent coverage of this important topic!

  2. Chris,

    I disagree with you. Compared to the speeds, quality of service, and price point of true broadband internet connectivity elsewhere in the world, the market in Chicago has failed.

    If you accept the telcos’ definitions of “broadband” and “acceptible” or “competitive” service levels, then merely identifying areas served by multiple telcos provides the illusion of market health. If you reject those definitions, the picture is a little different.

    There is no world-wide standard for broadband…”world-class” isn’t defined, yet. Part of the reason is that it’s so very much more profitable to milk a cash cow dry before sending it off to the slaughterhouse. But we can look at what the best in the world are doing with broadband, and what’s being made available, and even the new social, technological, and economic models that are emerging from this new infrastructure. Based on those trends, we can definitely make a comparison on whether our local infrastructure approaches world-class trends, or whether it fails miserably.

    This is certainly a major market failure, and one that is replicated across the country, though thankfully not across the world. When Chicago is covered with multiple wired and wireless options that rival what’s available in Korea, and when our infrastructural development are ahead of what’s being built in Paris or Japan, I might believe you.


  3. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Dave. Let’s start understanding that BROADBAND CONNECTIVITY starts at 1 Gbps and not some slow DSL speed. You establish a platform that can deliver 1Gbps and beyond and you are setting the trend.

    Protecting the status quo copper by adding a little glitter and calling it DSL or U-verse is like adding a vinyl top on a stagecoach in the era of the Space Shuttle. Ir’s STILL obsolete.

    Being involved first-hand in the planning and review of fiber-based and wireless network infrastructure – including Chicago’s 911 network infrastructure – my perspective of what happened or did not happen with Chicago is a little different than Mr. O’Brien’s.

    There was too much politics and no champion for CIVIC NET. My perspective —

    World-class today means planning and implementing gigabit to the end-user. If today’s “experts” don’t know that by now – they are far from being an “expert”.

  4. I just ran across this by accident. The CivicNet project was killed, but not for the reasons posted above. There were three finalists who all agreed, in great detail, to build out higher speed connections to 2000 City locations, including schools, libraries, police stations, etc. City owned and City controlled fiber was to be allowed to be used. The vendors also agreed to provide broadband to residents and businesses at competitive prices. The City was going to be anchor tenant – as such, there was NO NEW cost whatsoever, and, in fact, the City would have saved millions per year, AND gotten much improved service, AND the neighborhoods would have had broadband services today.
    After the technical evaluation, the City never sent out the final pricing questions, to find out how much the City would SAVE via CivicNet.
    No reason was ever given. Over two dozen people participated in the evaluation process, which I headed, along with the Procurement Department.
    Then, several years later, in another inexplicable move, the Chicago wireless RFP specifically disallowed companies responding to the RFP from using Chicago-owned fiber. Not surprisingly, the process collapsed.
    To this day, Chicago could issue the original CivicNet RFP, updated appropriately, and could move the City forward. Is anyone listening?

  5. It sounds like eleven years later, it has resurfaced as the “broadband challenge”.

  6. Ah, I forgot all about this. I just updated my latest Chicago broadband articles to point back to this 2003 broadband plan. It’s even older than the 2007 muni Wi-Fi plan.

    I wonder if they’ll ever get around to doing anything.