Lagging behind: rural broadband expansion promises faster speeds for downstate schools, hospitals

Illinois Capitol News

STAUNTON, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Suzy Campbell can’t stand her internet provider.

“They’re terrible,” she said. “I have not been able to pull up the internet or access internet for the last two weeks because they’re having a lot of connectivity problems.”

Her frustration is all too common for families living in rural Illinois: a school administrator in a district nearby says nearly one in five families in southern Macoupin County do not have access to reliable broadband internet.

“It’s not necessarily a lack of affordability, it’s a lack of availability,” said Todd Dugan, superintendent for more than 600 students who attend class in Bunker Hill.

As the chief administrator for the Community Hospital of Staunton, a critical access hospital, Campbell has seen doctors start to more frequently rely on a strong internet connection to check up on patients who were too afraid to visit a hospital or sit in a waiting room during a pandemic.

“When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, we took a hit,” Campbell said. “There is no doubt. People were afraid to come in. Our revenues dropped because we were not providing as many services.

“People have started coming back, but they’re a little bit reluctant,” she said.

“Many of them are farm families. Many of them are retirees. Some of them don’t even have computers in their home.”

Those who do have computers or smartphones may not always have a strong internet signal. Campbell, who lives in nearby Dorchester, has to leave her house to connect to the web.

“When my husband and I want to get on the internet, we take the computer and we go up to the train car,” she said, describing a recently installed internet hot spot at a local tourist attraction. “And we sit down and we connect and spend more time up there, conversing and being on the internet, and getting our email and stuff like that.”

Slow internet speeds at Campbell’s home are a mere inconvenience, but for her neighbors, lagging connectivity can disconnect a patient from their doctor or discourage a student struggling with remote learning.

“There are some districts that have not been able to secure [devices] or don’t have the bandwidth, so to say, so they’re resorting to learning packets,” Dugan said.

“Kids want to know how they do. They want to know pretty soon, too. Like, ‘Did I ace that quiz? Or did I bomb that quiz?’ And collecting packets once or twice a week, and then letting the paper sit for 72 hours, and then grading them, and then letting it sit for 72 more hours, and then distributing it back home, I could see how kids learning could be falling behind.”

Tech and Learning Magazine recognized Dugan as a Leader of the Year in 2017, a national award for educators who embrace technology innovation in the classroom. He says each student in his district has access to a Google Chromebook and a Sprint mobile hot spot, but other districts nearby were not as well prepared when the Coronavirus scattered the calendar and sent students home.

Madison Communications, a regional broadband supplier, installed a long-distance WiFi access point on the district building and cranked up its speed ten times faster to reach one gig. After installing a number of content and security filters, Dugan removed the password and allowed the public to access to the faster speeds at no expense.

The company recently secured $5.1 million in private capital alongside $4.2 million in state grant funding to upgrade its “backbone,” to dig trenches to lay fiber optic cabling, and to accelerate a project to enhance nearly ten thousand internet connections.

Governor Pritzker, whose venture capital firm invests heavily in tech and internet-based startups, has set a goal of universal internet access “in every corner of Illinois” by 2024.

The ‘Rebuild Illinois’ capital program, which was funded in large part with higher motor fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, set aside $420 million in grant funding for rural broadband expansion.

At a press event at Madison Communications’ Staunton headquarters on Monday, Pritzker announced that private investors had put up $65 million in outside funding to match the first $50 million in state grant funds. The money will fund 28 broadband infrastructure projects, Pritzker said, and could result in faster broadband internet speeds for more than 26,000 homes, farms, or facilities around the state.

“The lack of fast internet access had unacceptable consequences for too many of our neighborhoods, and towns and counties and communities,” Pritzker said. “Unfortunately, this pandemic has compounded those disparities and made them even more stark, because we’ve seen firsthand what it means when a small business that had to close its doors has no online store; and it what it means when an elderly couple has no safe way to get medical advice from a distance; what it means when a child has no ability to access homework assignments online; what it means when a rural hospital is unable to implement telehealth services to reach more patients in real time.”

Michael Negron, the assistant director at the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said most of the projects slated to receive state grant funds require private investors or lenders to put up half of the money or more.

“This ensures that we get the most bang for our buck with these investments of state dollars,” Negron said.

However, he announced the state will relax the requirements on matching private funds during upcoming rounds of funding in some specific instances “where you have large numbers of residents who live in poverty or in hard to reach communities.”

“Once we invest in the infrastructure — to put the lines in the ground to make sure that we have high speed available — we also want to make sure that people can afford to pay for it,” Pritzker explained.

“Having this type of investment into rural Illinois, it means the world,” Dugan said. “It means that no longer will students and families be forced to choose between, ‘Do I stay in this rural community where I enjoy it, where life is good? Or do I have to relocate to a different zip code when they have these better opportunities?'”

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