Here's why thousands lacking access to broadband in central Illinois is important
In an increasingly digital world, the need for broadband has become paramount for local residents and businesses. Still, many in Illinois lack access to high-speed internet according to data collected by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity Office of Broadband.
A map compiled by the DCEO found that about 5,000 households in Sangamon County do not have internet reaching speeds of 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload - the standard broadband speed determined by the Federal Communications Commission.
More rural parts of the state have lower rates of internet availability such as Menard County where more than 30% of its population lacks broadband. Households without broadband, instead, often have to travel to places with public WiFi to do school or professional work.
Broadband expansion and the need for it in Illinois was at the center of a Monday forum attended by Springfield-area business and community leaders.
What's the key to 'digital equity'
Tiffany Mathis, executive director and CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Illinois, said gaps in digital access became apparent during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic when students were attending classes and doing homework remotely. the need for internet is essential for students to do their homework. The club's Springfield and Jacksonville locations served as an internet hub for many students.
While the shutdown of COVID-19 ended, the use of electronic devices in the classroom has only grown she said.
"Prior to the pandemic, we had students that had their tablet or device to just learn how to use them in school," she said. "Now, they are literally going home with them every day."
Sean McCarthy, Comcast regional vice president, said the solution to this digital divide is an estimated $50 billion available nationwide through federal stimulus and state and county programs. The end goal for the funding is to provide "digital equity," he said.
"Digital equity is no matter where you live, how much money you make, you have access to internet and broadband services," he said.
What's the economic impact?
Without the expansion of the resource, president and CEO of the Springfield Sangamon Growth Alliance Ryan McCrady forecasted fewer opportunities for economic growth in the area.
SSGA works with prospective businesses to determine where they should open operations, McCrady said, and access to utilities is a common question.
"That used to mean water, electricity, natural gas and now it means broadband," he said. "That's a standard utility. It's not something that's nice to have, if they absolutely want to know what exists, they have to have it."
Broadband:The 'digital divide': In Illinois, many still lack broadband access
What is Connect Illinois?
Announced prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Connect Illinois is the state's primary engine for expanding broadband access. The $400 million-plus program is funded by both the Rebuild Illinois capital plan and the American Rescue Plan Act according to DCEO.
Through the funding, the Broadband Advisory Council, the DCEO broadband office, and the Illinois Century Network — providing all Illinois public K-12 students free access to high-speed broadband — were created.
In December, the state received $6.5 million in grants from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden. Portions of the funding will be used to aid the Connect Illinois program in identifying underserved communities in the state, and for staffing within the state's broadband office.
The second round of Connect Illinois was announced last month, where 22 projects statewide received a total of $47 million in funding. Another $350 million is available through the third round of grants that will be available through 2024 or until funds are depleted.
Gov. JB Pritzker is scheduled to give his State of the State and budget address for the 2024 fiscal year next week at the Capitol.
Budget:Pritzker defends new Illinois budget pushed through by Dems with $1 billion in projects
Last year, broadband spending in Illinois was boosted by federal funds such as the American Recovery Plan Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. House Bill 900, the appropriations bill, added several investments into broadband including a $99.6 million reappropriation to the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for expanding and strengthening existing networks among other items.
Contact Patrick Keck: (312) 549-9340, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/@pkeckreporter.
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Thousands lack access to broadband in Sangamon County: What to know