Inspired by Google, Chicago pursues gigabit broadband

Quite the thriving tech community has sprouted up in Chicago’s River North neighborhood in the last year, spurred by startup hub 1871, Excelerate Labs and Google’s(s goog) decision to relocate Motorola to Chicago’s storied Merchandise Mart. Now Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to invest in broadband and Wi-Fi infrastructure to expand this nascent “Digital Alley” to new tech zones as well as bring cheap internet access to underserved areas throughout the city.

If it sounds like Chicago is angling to be the next candidate for Google Fiber, then you’re probably not too far off base. At a press conference on Monday, Emanuel revealed that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was the inspiration for the idea. Chicago is in the process of overhauling its century-old water distribution system, and Schmidt suggested that Chicago take advantage of the fact it’s digging up the city to lay new data as well as water pipes, Emanuel said.

According to Crain’s Chicago Business, the city is also willing to offer up access to other urban bric-a-brac that make up Chicago’s municipal infrastructure, from utility and light poles to dark fiber already strung under the Chicago Transit’s authorities elevated rails and within its subway tunnels.

There are a lot of cities vying for Google’s attention in case it chooses to expand its fiber project, and Emanuel isn’t betting the farm Chicago will be its next benefactor. He didn’t mention Google Fiber specifically in his speech, and instead announced that Chicago would issue a request for proposal asking any interested company, local university or other organization to submit ideas for implementing all or parts of the broadband rollout. Emanuel said he anticipates members of Chicago’s growing startup and entrepreneurial community would play a key role in contributing ideas.

Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, new home of Motorola

The goal of the project is to build gigabit last-mile fiber infrastructure in 15 “innovation zones” located in commercial and industrial corridors throughout the city. A second aim of that fiber build-out is to bring cheap broadband access to underserved and disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city – of which Chicago has plenty – and develop training programs to teach residents in those areas the “digital skills” necessary to put that access to use.

Finally, Chicago plans to launch a network of free Wi-Fi hotspots throughout city parks, plazas and other public spaces. The first of these networks went live this month in Chicago’s touristy Millennium Park. Though this component may seem like the least ambitious of Emanuel’s plan, it may well be the most controversial. During the first internet boom, Emanuel’s mayoral predecessor Richard M. Daley proposed an ambitious plan to blanket the entire city in Wi-Fi, but after several false starts the project was killed in 2007.

Chicago isn’t exactly starving for broadband either. Because of its central role in commodities and futures exchange markets (Where did you think pork bellies were traded?) Chicago’s downtown business core has some of the fastest internet access in the world, which the new River North tech community is tapping into. But Emanuel’s aim is to convert industrial zones lining Chicago’s miasma of waterways and railroad tracks — once devoted to slaughtering livestock, packing meat and manufacturing cocktail weenies – into high-tech zones. Also, the educational institutions around which tech communities like to congregate are well outside of the downtown core.

Chicago skyline image courtesy of Flickr user Bert KaufmannMerchandise Mart image courtesy of Flickr user HarshLight