Illinois Public Media News
Comcast has unveiled a program, known as "Internet Essentials," to expand Internet access for about $10 a month to low-income families.
The cable and Internet provider wants to make the program available next month in 39 states, including Illinois, where the company's Internet service is offered. Comcast spokesman Jack Segal said eligible families must have at least one child receiving free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program. He estimates that lunch program is open to more than 4,500 students in Champaign and Urbana.
"Internet access is the great equalizer," Segal said. "It's great for people economically to have access --- kids especially to have access to the internet to do their homework, to learn, to dream, and to really, really participate in the world."
To qualify for the program, customers must not have any overdue bills with the company or unreturned equipment. They also cannot join Comcast's Internet service 90 days prior to joining the program.
The low-income families who qualify can purchase vouchers for a new computer valued at around $150. They can also sign up for free digital literacy training.
This is not the only internet plan coming to Champaign-Urbana. Organizers of the UC2B Big Broadband project are hoping to get high-speed Internet in the area by Feb. 2013. The University of Illinois has taken the lead in getting the more than $22 million federal grant and a $3.5 million state grant to support the project, but it is leaving much of the work to the cities.
The high-speed Internet plan would costs about twice as much for customers compared to the Comcast program and run up to 10 times faster, according Mike Smeltzer, the principal investigator of UC2B's grant.
"Our connection will be massively fast," Smeltzer said. "I think (Comcast's plan) is kind of like training wheels for our project. If somebody doesn't have Internet today, and they look at this and they say, 'Hey, this would be good for our kids that are in school, and we can afford the 10 bucks a month, let's get it.' It will only wet their appetite for something better."
Smeltzer also praised Comcast's reduced-price service, saying it will help connect people in areas where the UC2B project won't be available.
(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
The University of Illinois is the lead researcher for a $121 million digital network funded by the National Science Foundation. The Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment, or XSEDE for short, is seen as an expansion of the TeraGrid project, which started in the late 1990s.
Illinois Public Media's Jeff Bossert spoke with project leader John Towns about how the focus has shifted to a larger partnership with more top-research universities.
Chicago-based Groupon is facing a fierce new competitor in the group discount market. Amazon.com is launching Amazon Local and promises to save consumers 50 percent or more on daily email deals.
Amazon Local has tip-toed into six markets around the US, and Chicago is its latest hold. With more than 140 million users across the globe, Amazon Local could become the industry's leader.
RJ Hottovy is a senior stock analyst with Morningstar. He said, "I think consumers may be more apt to open up the email or listen to the daily deal from Amazon, so it could have the potential to be a very disruptive force."
But at the same time, Hottovy thinks the scores of copy-cat deal sites could become a bad thing for featured businesses. "I feel like the market may be nearing saturation and it's going to be more and more difficult for rivals to have deals that stand out among consumers at this point," he said.
And in another nerve-wracking move for established internet companies, Amazon.com, Inc. announced Thursday that it reached an agreement with NBC Universal to license and stream movies.
So now online entertainment companies Hulu and Netflix are joining Groupon in the "what exactly does this mean for us?" waiting game.
The Citizens Utility Board says most smart phone users are paying too much for their service, because of wireless data plans that are too big for their needs.
At a Champaign news conference on Thursday, CUB spokesman Patrick Deignan said an analysis they commissioned of Verizon bills nationwide showed that their average smart phone customer used less than 500 megabytes of data per month --- far less than what was provided by Verizon's lowest data plan. Diegnan said that industry-wide, the available data plans were either too big, or too small.
"Verizon, for example, their standard data plan for a smart phone is two gigabytes," he said. "AT&T and T-Mobile, I believe, offer 200 megabyte plans. But we're not seeing a plan to fit the average user, which is about 450 megabytes a month."
Deignan said that means many wireless customers are buying plans that are too big for their needs, causing them to pay for capacity they don't use. He said CUB is calling on the wireless industry to improve the situation for consumers --- by offering lower-tier data plans of 500 megabytes to 1 gigabyte, as well as family share plans and rollover data to help wireless customers make their money go further.
In the meantime, the consumer group is inviting smart phone users to run their wireless bill through CUB's online Cellphone Saver, to find out how where to cut unused data or unwanted services. Diegnan said that the Cellphone Saver program has analyzed more than 19,000 bills since its launch three years ago -- and found savings in 70% of the cases.
A spokesman for the wireless industry could not be immediately reached for comment.
The cities of Champaign and Urbana are close to signing off on plans that will start construction on the 'Big Broadband' project with the University of Illinois.
The U of I has taken the lead in getting the more than $22-million federal grant and a $3.5 million state grant, but is leaving much work to the cities as work starts up.
The university's Mike Smeltzer, the principal investigator of the grant, said the agreements will explain the relationship between the two cities and U of I with regard to the project. The U of I will then agree to reallocate a portion of grant funds to the cities for the project, along with contracts dealing with construction companies. Smeltzer said these agreements, by and large, mean avoiding disagreement later.
"We're getting some things down in writing that certainly have been in some people's heads," he said. "But you know, if three people have a conversation and not everybody walks away from that conversation with the exact same memory of what was talked about, this is getting it all down in writing so there's really a not a whole lot of room for misunderstanding in terms of who's doing what, and where's the money going, and why."
Smeltzer said the construction contracts for both and Urbana and Champaign's portion of Big Broadband, or UC2B, are expected to go before their city councils by next week. He said that means construction could begin by late August or early September, and the project should be completed on time, by February of 2013.
The University of Illinois is trying to fix some kinks in its emergency alert system before students return for the fall semester.
Over the last couple of days, the U of I has sent out test alerts to cell phones and e-mail addresses. University spokeswoman Robin Kaler said e-mail alerts are taking longer to arrive because of spam filters getting in the way of those messages, and a lack of connections to accommodate all of the recipients quickly enough.
"We have to find what these glitches are in the system before the school year starts," Kaler said. "We can try some things without having anybody in a situation where we got a campus full of students and we need the system to be completely functioning."
In the latest test Friday afternoon, Kaler said it took about twenty minutes for 45 percent of the university to receive an e-mail alert. However, she said text message alerts appear to be working without any problems. Of the 24,610 cell phone numbers that participated in a test on Thursday, 24,010 phones received the message.
"That's very exciting for us because obviously for a lot of people these days, that is their preferred method of receiving information," she said.
Kaler said more tests are needed to increase the time it takes for these messages to get to people's e-mails. She said the goal is to get all alerts reaching just about everyone at the university within six minutes.
For more information about signing up for the emergency alerts, visit emergency.illinois.edu.
Borders says it plans to end its operations by the end of September.
The Ann Arbor-based company announced plans Monday to sell off its assets after not receiving any bids to stay in business. At its peak in 2003, Borders ran more than 1,200 stores, but by the time the company filed for bankruptcy protection in February, that number was cut in half.
Technology played a big role in the company's demise, according to Dilip Sarwate, a professor in business administration at the University of Illinois.
"It's certainly difficult to compete with the likes of Amazon," Sarwate said. "I'm not sure this could be completely avoided. Fewer and fewer people are visiting bookstores. They are going to their computers and buying books."
But Lisa Bayer, who is the marketing director for the University of Illinois Press, said while technology did play a role in Border's downfall, it could have been avoided. She said Borders simply was not prepared for the onslaught of digital reading devices.
"They didn't position themselves to take advantage of various changes," Bayer said. "Barnes and Noble has the NOOK. Amazon developed the Kindle. Borders did really nothing."
Borders did come out with an e-reader last year, known as a Kobo. Produced by an electronic company in Canada, the Kobo will still be available to people who use the software to purchase and read books.
Up until Monday, the University of Illinois Press was still doing business with Borders. Bayer said the publishing company has been distancing itself from the retail giant over the last five years for various reasons, including "very questionable" decisions by the company's management.
Bayer said the University of Illinois Press' involvement with Borders was so minimal that she does not think the bookstore's failure will have a huge impact on the publishing company.
"It's very likely they hadn't even ordered any of our books in a while," she said, noting that many of the University of Illinois Press' books are scholarly journals. "We're not as much of an interest to them as some other kinds of publishers."
Of the nearly 400 Borders bookstores slated to close, three are in Champaign, Mattoon and Peoria.
Mary Beth Nebel runs an independent retail bookstore in Peoria called "I Know You Like a Book." She said she does not think Border's demise is a sign that other retailers are destined to fail.
"I hate to see any bookstore close," she said, reflecting on Border's closure. "I think independent bookstore like I have is much different than a chain store. It's more of a community-based place. I think more people will enjoy that sort of atmosphere."
With Peoria's Borders expected to close and a Barnes and Noble still running, Nebel said she has no intention of changing the way she runs her five-year-old business.
A member of a Vermilion County panel that has signed off on a license for a large wind farm on the county's west side says further qualifications will be required for the project
According to Bill Donahue, the Wind Turbine Regulatory Committee said his panel's job was not to weigh the merits of wind farms, but to make sure Chicago-based Invenergy met all the requirements of the county's wind ordinance. Donahue said there is a continuing process involved.
"Just because you've got the permit doesn't mean the heat is off," Donahue said. "We monitor any changes they notify us about, if there's substantial changes and if they want to do something drastically different, we may have a new hearing. So it's not like it's all said and done and over and we pretend they don't exist. There's an ongoing relationship that's going to continue throughout the life of the project."
The Vermilion County Board will take up the recommendation when it meets Tuesday night at 6 p.m. The committee approved the plans Wednesday night. The 134 turbine wind farm would start in an area northeast of Kickapoo State Park, and extend into eastern Champaign County. Donahue said there have only been a handful of concerns citing noise and shadow flicker caused by turbines, but county board members will have to weigh those.
"They (opponents) like the way their land is now, they don't even want to see wind turbines," he said. "And I understand that. The difficulty, of course, is that there are other landowners who want that economic development. They're the ones who have leased the land out. And even if we were in the business of trying to make value judgments and I'm not, the community does have some interest in economic development, and I think we're right to begin weighing those things."
About 30 of the turbines would be located in Champaign County, just north of Royal and south of Gifford. But Champaign County Planning and Zoning Director John Hall said the application has not been received yet. Champaign County's Zoning Board of Appeals could take up Invenergy's proposal in late August.
An Invenergy spokeswoman said the company can't comment on its plans at this point, but in a released statement, says the two counties are an "optimal location for a successful wind project, with an excellent wind resource and strong community support.'"
Invenergy has developed 26 wind farms in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Brooke Gladstone, co-host of NPR's "On the Media," is out with a media manifesto in comic book form where she plays the lead character. The book is titled "The Influencing Machine." In it, Gladstone attempts to educate people on how to become smarter consumers and shapers of the media. She spoke with Illinois Public Media's Sean Powers.
Searching for lost children and seniors may be a little easier under a plan state legislators sent to Governor Pat Quinn.
It's a small wristband and fastens just like a watch, but instead of telling the time, a small microchip inside acts like a GPS system. They are worn by people prone to wandering off like autistic children or someone with Alzheimer's.
Lawmakers voted to allow the device to patch in directly to 911, an exemption not many other private alarm companies enjoy. The wristband itself could call police when a person goes missing. Carol Stream Republican Senator John Millner said a single cop can find the missing person, rather having to activate a whole search squad.
"With this device here, its simply one call, one activation and we would be able to find that person swiftly, saving money, saving time," Millner said.
But Rockford Republican Dave Syverson voted against it. Only one business in the state, Murphysboro-based Care Trak, currently makes the devices.
"For one company we're setting up that they can go to 911 direct, but for burglaries, and for seniors, they still run through the private sector," Syverson said.
Syverson said if the state gives this company an exemption, other alarm systems will want the same perk.
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