Aurora looking to become 'regional tech leader'

Written by Steve Lord, Aurora Beacon-News. April 5, 2018. Aurora looking to become 'regional tech leader'

 Aurora Chief Information Officer Michael Pegues explains the “Smart Park” concept for RiverEdge Park. (City of Aurora)

Aurora Chief Information Officer Michael Pegues explains the “Smart Park” concept for RiverEdge Park. (City of Aurora)

Michael Pegues, city of Aurora chief information officer, said his aim for the future of the city is clear.

"Making the city of Aurora a regional tech leader," he said.

The city this year will see RiverEdge Park, the outdoor entertainment venue and park on North Broadway, become a "smart park" — crews have been expanding the city's fiber optic network, Onlight Aurora, throughout the venue.

The infrastructure at the park will be better integrated through technology, which will allow officials to keep better track of crowds, have better security, analyze the environmental situation at all times, keep track of parking lots – both from a security angle and from being able to tell where parking spots are available – have better emergency response and use energy and other resources more efficiently, Pegues said.

He said the "smart park" will be a better way to get people into Aurora and see what the city has to offer, as well as a way to develop technology initiatives throughout the city.

"I call it a gateway," he said.

Aurora is a finalist to be named a "smart city" by the Smart Cities Coalition in Washington, D.C.

But even if it doesn't get that designation this year, city officials are determined to turn Aurora into a technology hub for years to come. Pegues said that effort starts with the city's fiber optic network, and extends through the entire city operation and into the community.

"Fiber is the fourth utility," he said. "The fiber optic network is an asset that we have. It's a smart investment that we use less than 3 percent of."

The city has started with its own operation, using its technology department to develop programs to read water meters, to help the city's financial management and to better communicate in the area of public safety.

This year, the city is developing a system for better record-keeping and communication between all the development-related departments, as well as with the development community.

But the "smart park" work, as well as the smart city initiative altogether, also has a money-making aspect for the city. At RiverEdge Park, kiosks will give the city a chance to make money from advertising, as well as communicate quickly to the public.

"I want to look at using our assets to generate revenue," Pegues said. "If we set this smart city up, we could share with Naperville, North Aurora. We can say, hey, township, you can use our system."

Eventually, the fiber optic network would sell to business institutions and possible even to households.

Mayor Richard Irvin said the effect of an up-to-date technology department at the city has already shown that it can help with the city's financial health. In his State of the City address this week, Irvin praised the IT department under Pegues with saving $2.3 million through renegotiating license agreements and other things.

A Downers Grove-based trade association, CompTIA, which monitors technology business, said in a recent report that the Chicago metropolitan area added more than 4,000 technology jobs in 2017.

It was a 1.4 percent increase from 2016, ranking Chicago 13th among major metropolitan areas in job growth in the tech sector.

Aurora is positioning itself as sort of a tech hub in the region. It already has activity near the CyrusOne data center at Eola and Diehl Roads, and that includes the new headquarters for Scientel Solutions Inc., which will be built across from CyrusOne this year.

This past week, Irvin and Pegues attended the 2018 Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in Kansas City at which they discussed and learned about "Smart City" best practices.

For the future, Pegues is planning to set up a cyber security team for the city that could also be available to look at cyber security issues throughout the city. He also plans to make it possible for people to file Freedom of Information Act requests online, and even directly access city data that one might be seeking through FOIA online.

The city is looking at public-private partnerships, and possibly extending fiber optic and smart technology to the Aurora Municipal Airport.

The effort is in the early stages, officials said.

"This is a phased project, and we're at phase zero," Pegues said.

Aurora looks to expand fiber optic network downtown

Written by Steve Lord, Aurora Beacon-News. February 26, 2018. Aurora looks to expand fiber optic network downtown

The city of Aurora is looking to expand its fiber optic network further through downtown, thanks to a grant from the downtown tax increment financing district.

Aldermen are set to vote on $75,000 from the downtown TIF to pay for connecting commercial properties to OnLight Aurora. The council will vote at its full meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the council chambers, City Hall, 44 E. Downer Place.

The properties to be connected include the new Aurora Arts Center; the Paramount Theatre; North Island Center; businesses along Stolp Avenue; businesses along River Street, between Benton Street and Downer Place; the former West Aurora School District administration building at River and Benton streets; and the Family Counseling Center.

Michael Pegues, Aurora's chief information officer, said hooking those properties onto the fiber network will allow further development and reuse of both vacant and occupied commercial spaces.

OnLight Aurora has received grants before to extend service into areas that are not covered, or in some cases, bringing the network into a building. The last such grant was connecting River Street commercial properties, which is to be finished soon.

Pegues recently told aldermen originally the $75,000 was budgeted to connect the Aurora Arts Center, which is being built in the former Waubonsee Community College building at Stolp and Galena Boulevard.

He said it was cheaper to do the Arts Center than first thought, so "all that other work was done with the $75,000 originally just for the Aurora Arts Center."

OnLight Aurora now has more than 82 miles of fiber optics.

Aldermen also are scheduled to vote on a $275,000 professional services agreement with National Technologies to do the first audit on the fiber network.

Pegues told aldermen they chose National Technologies because they have been the only fiber installation, repair and maintenance company to work on the network since 2015. They not only know the system, they know the coding they have used for wiring.

According to the contract, National Technology would audit all 82 miles, identify and remediate any issues and provide written documentation and photos upon completion.


Aurora's Fiber: "A Big Attraction" In Illinois

Written by lgonzalez, Community Networks. October 4, 2017. Aurora's Fiber: "A Big Attraction" In Illinois

OnLight Aurora, the nonprofit ISP serving Aurora, Illinois via publicly owned infrastructure, is bringing more companies to the second largest city in the state.

"One Of The Reasons We're Here"

Scientel Solutions, a wireless communications company with headquarters in Lombard, Illinois, is making a move to Aurora. The company plans to build its own 12,000 square foot office building and an accompanying warehouse in the community where they will be near a local data center.

The data Cyrus One data center was only one reason Scientel chose Aurora, according to the company’s attorney Richard Williams:

“In addition to being near Cyrus One, Williams told aldermen the company also was lured by OnLight Aurora, the city's fiber optic network.” 

"Fiber was a big attraction to us," Williams said. "That's one of the reasons we're here."

Rather than continue to lease its Lombard location, the company has decided to invest in its own property. In addition to constructing the facilities, Scientel will erect a communications tower on its new site. Lombard is approximately 25 miles east of Aurora, closer to downtown Chicago.

Scientel will bring 30 Lombard employees to Aurora and hire 20 more employees to work at the new headquarters.

Unexpected Benefits

Back in 1995, city leadership decided to invest in publicly owned infrastructure to reduce telecommunications costs, upgrade to a faster network, and obtain the reliability they couldn’t get from incumbents. At the time, the city used patchwork of different connections and while some facilities obtained adequate connectivity, others in the more far-reaching areas of the community depended on old leased lines that weren’t up to task. Employees in some offices traveled to offices where connectivity was better in order to complete specific tasks that required better connections.

Rather than continue to pay $500,000 per year to telecommunications providers to pay for multiple leased lines, community leaders saw the wisdom in fiber optic investment. Construction on the 60-mile network started in 2008, lasted for three years, and allowed Aurora to save $485,000 per year on telecommunications costs. The final cost to deploy was approximately $7 million.

While the original goal was to cut municipal costs and improve connectivity for the city, the network has generated other benefits. In 2011, the network attracted a $12 million grant from the Federal Highway Administration to upgrade traffic signals as part of an Intelligent Traffic System (ITS). The grant allowed Aurora to pay off the original cost of deployment.

In 2012, the city’s broadband task force formed nonprofit ISP OnLight Aurora. The organization has driven better connectivity for community anchor institutions (CAIs), schools, and businesses. Learn more about the community and OnLight Aurora by listening to Christopher’s conversation with Alderman Rick Mervine in episode 123 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from 2014.

OnLight Aurora Expanding To Create "Smart Park"

Written by lgonzalez, Community Networks. April 11, 2018. OnLight Aurora Expanding To Create "Smart Park"


Last fall, the City Council in Aurora, Illinois, approved a grant to OnLight Aurora to help fund the publicly owned network expansion to more commercial facilities along South River Street. This year, community leaders plan to move north and bring fiber optic infrastructure to RiverEdge Park along the Fox River as they turn the location into a “smart park.”

RiverEdge Park hosts festivals and other events, including summer concerts at it’s pavilion. Public officials want to take advantage of the community’s publicly owned broadband infrastructure for better security and to control parking. The city’s CIO Michael Pegues says that with better parking monitor and control, the city will be able to provide quicker emergency response and more efficient energy use. OnLight Aurora at RiverEdge Park may also generate revenue with kiosks for advertising.

Pegues and other city officials want to continue to grow Aurora’s increasing reputation as a tech-savvy community and to possibly expand the network to serve the nearby communities of Naperville and North Aurora.

“Smart” Attraction

Community leaders, including Pegues and Mayor Richard Irvin, want to cultivate Aurora’s growing reputation as a “smart city.” They’ve already leveraged OnLight Aurora to attract high-tech jobs, such as luring wireless communications company Scientel Solutions from Lombard. Scientel leadership described OnLight Aurora as “a big attraction.” The company will build its new headquarters near CyrusOne, a data center that connects to the fiber network.

The addition of a “smart park” is another creative way to use the publicly owned infrastructure in ways that serve lifestyles of people in the community. Aurora hopes to soon be named a “smart city” by the D.C. Smart Cities Coalition. The Coalition's video describes what characteristics "smart cities" share:


Evolution Of A Necessity

Aurora's fiber network began as a way for the municipality to improve connectivity for public facilities, cut telecommunications costs, and find the reliability that incumbents weren’t providing in the mid-1990s. When Aurora needed consistency instead of a patchwork of different connections, they decided to invest in fiber to future-proof their investment.

They had been paying about $500,000 per year to lease multiple lines from different providers and realized that an investment in a publicly owned network could save them significantly over the long-term. The final cost to deploy the network came to approximately $7 million, but they also reduced their costs for telecommunications by $485,000 per year.

In 2011, the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) injected a $12 million grant into the network, which allowed them to pay off the original cost of deployment. The FHA integrated the city’s fiber into a project to upgrade traffic signals as part of an Intelligent Traffic System (ITS).

Even though the city had this money-saving fiber asset as early as the 1990s, Aurora didn’t form the nonprofit OnLight Aurora ISP until 2012. At that time, they began serving community anchor institutions (CAIs), schools, and businesses. We spoke with Alderman Rick Mervine in 2014 about the network for episode 123 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

More Innovation Ahead?

As the city continues to explore the possibilities, Pegues told the Chicago Tribune that it may take OnLight Aurora to the municipal airport, expand ways for citizens to access city data online, and establish a cyber security team. They are also considering how public-private partnerships can help them use the fiber infrastructure in new ways.