American Rescue Plan Act Will Help Connect Illinois
Tuesday, January 10, 2023
American Rescue Plan Act Will Help Connect Illinois
"Connect Illinois is all about opening doors and closing gaps for our residents, delivering demonstrable change to people’s lives and real opportunity for new business development and new jobs."
—Governor JB Pritzker (D-IL)
As part of his $45 billion Rebuild Illinois investment strategy, Governor JB Pritzker (D-IL) launched a statewide initiative, Connect Illinois, in August 2019 to expand broadband access across the entire state. Connect Illinois includes a capital investment from Rebuild Illinois, the creation of a Broadband Advisory Council and Broadband Office, and a new program that will provide all Illinois public K-12 students access to high-speed broadband at no charge. The initiative also includes a $400 million broadband grant program and a $20 million capital program for the Illinois Century Network, a high-speed broadband network serving K-12 and higher education institutions, among others.
Governor Pritzker also set the goals that by 2024, Illinois homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions throughout the state should have access to basic service of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload (25/3 Mbps), and that by 2028, all should have access to at least one provider offering 100/20 Mbps service.
The Digital Divide in Illinois
In June 2020, the Illinois legislature called for a statewide broadband access and affordability study including cost estimates for universal broadband access where existing broadband infrastructure is insufficient, universal free or affordable broadband access for all residents, and free or affordable broadband access for those in poverty. Using data from the 2019 American Community Survey, researchers examined broadband and computer adoption in Illinois. They found that:
- 70.4% of Illinois households subscribe to wireline high-speed internet service.
- 1,441,161 Illinois households do not subscribe to such service.
- 77.0% of households have a desktop or laptop computer.
- 1,119,013 Illinois households lack computers of this sort.
- 82.6% of Illinois households have either a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer.
- 846,677 households lack any of these devices.
- 57.9% of African American households in Illinois have wireline broadband at home, and 62.1% have a desktop or laptop computer.
- 63.4% of Latino households in Illinois have wireline broadband subscriptions, and 69.0% have a desktop or laptop computer.
- 71.2% of White households in Illinois have wireline broadband subscriptions, and 80.4% have a desktop or laptop computer.
- 63.8% of those between the ages of 65 and 74 in Illinois have wireline service, and 73.9% have a desktop or laptop computer. For those ages 75 and older, 44.8% subscribe to high-speed service at home, and 52.3% have a desktop or laptop computer.
The researchers estimated it would cost between $306 million and $485 million to reach all unserved households with basic 25/3 broadband access and between $1.410 billion and $1.865 billion to extend 100/20 access to everyone in the state.
Connect Illinois Broadband Strategic Plan
In February 2020, the Illinois Office of Broadband released its broadband strategic plan for reaching Gov. Pritzker's goals. At its core, the state's push toward broadband ubiquity was identified as one of equity—targeting resources to close gaps and expand opportunity for unserved and underserved communities throughout Illinois. The plan addresses access, adoption, and economic development.
Poor broadband represents an infrastructure gap with serious socioeconomic consequences. Despite significant investment from the private sector and federal government, large swaths of Illinois lacked access to basic, 25/3 broadband service. At the same time, pockets of urban areas, developments just outside city lines, and entire rural communities alike fell below this threshold, posing a challenge to equitable investment that the Office of Broadband said must be surmounted if opportunity is to be widespread.
Digital Literacy, Adoption, and Inclusion
If broadband infrastructure and service represent one side of the connectivity coin, the flip side is broadband utilization—including digital literacy, adoption, and inclusion. While the relatively simple and well-documented barriers to the former often include population sparsity, geography, and lack of economic return on investment, barriers to utilization are more complex. Adoption and literacy rates are of particular concern in black and brown communities and rural regions across Illinois. For a state, local community, or individual family to compete in the 21st century digital economy, these barriers, the Office of Broadband said, must be overcome. Thus, Connect Illinois would leverage complementary efforts to ensure that Illinoisans have both the requisite broadband service and necessary broadband skills.
Support Economic Development Goals
Strategic broadband deployment will maximize connections—to homes, businesses, and community anchor institutions alike—while promoting opportunities in broadband-driven applications, such as those in economic development, education, precision agriculture, and telehealth. As envisioned in the strategic plan, Connect Illinois would enable and showcase cutting-edge broadband innovations across various sectors of the state’s economy, including those highlighted in Gov. Pritzker’s Five-Year Economic Plan: agriculture, energy, health care, information technology, manufacturing, and transportation. Broadband infrastructure investments would support Pritzker’s strategy to revitalize the Illinois economy and catalyze equitable growth.
Illinois Century Network
Rebuild Illinois includes $20 million for the Illinois Century Network to repair and expand the broadband network for schools, refresh aged components of the network, and expand the existing network, with a focus on the K-12 portion.
The Illinois Century Network is a high-speed broadband network serving K-12 and higher education institutions, public libraries and museums, state and local governments, and broadband service providers. The Illinois Century Network provides internet and intranet connectivity for thousands throughout the state for cloud-based content, disaster recovery services, and data, video, and audio communications. The network owns or leases approximately 2,100 miles of fiber optic cables throughout the state and interconnects with multiple regional public and private networks throughout Illinois.
The Connect Illinois Broadband Grant Program
Rebuild Illinois included $400 million for a statewide broadband deployment grant program, Connect Illinois, housed in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. The program aspires to achieve broadband equity and broadband innovation by promoting the following project criteria:
- Competitive matching grants scored based upon merit and requiring a certain non-state match, transforming the Connect Illinois investment into a potential total public-private investment of $1 billion or more in state and non-state sources, whether federal, local, or private funds.
- Applicant inclusive approach inspiring a wide array of proposals, including but not limited to those from providers, cooperatives, municipalities, tribal entities, nonprofits, and public-private partnerships.
- Technology neutral approach enabling a diverse set of providers and related technology to qualify for funding, including various wireline and wireless approaches.
- Service scalable to at least 100 Mbps symmetrical speeds to allow for future upgrades and ensure long-term return on the historic investment.
- Open access preference acknowledging that collaboration over infrastructure promotes better service for consumers and expanded network coverage for providers.
- Community-driven approach promoting direct engagement among providers, local communities, and individual stakeholders to collaborate and build toward a shared community technology vision.
- Balanced challenge processes empowering providers, communities, consumers, and individual stakeholders alike to challenge the accuracy of published broadband service levels that inform state broadband mapping and broadband program eligibility.
- Affordability incentives to ensure that the Connect Illinois program takes a comprehensive approach to promoting broadband access through broadband equity, addressing one critical barrier to adoption: a consumer's cost to connect.
- Synergy with the state's five-year economic plan to provide a strategic frame for aligning Connect Illinois investment with broader economic goals and opportunities.
- Emphasis on applications to showcase cutting-edge broadband-driven innovations in areas such as agriculture, economic development, education, and telehealth.
On December 20, 2022, the U.S. Department of the Treasury approved Illinois' plan to use its full allocation of Capital Projects Fund support ($253.7 million) for the Connect Illinois Broadband Grant program. Funds will be used to support the deployment of networks to areas lacking access to at least 100/20 Mbps wireline broadband service. Illinois will prioritize projects that demonstrate community support, deploy fiber-optic infrastructure, and provide affordable service and adoption assistance. The program is designed to provide internet service with speeds of 100/100 Mbps symmetrical to households and businesses upon project completion.
The Illinois Office of Broadband estimates that the Capital Projects Fund support will help connect 87,163—approximately 25 percent of all the locations still lacking high-speed internet access in the state. Supported networks will participate in the Federal Communications Commission's Affordable Connectivity Program which provides a $30/month subsidy for broadband service for low-income families.
A Holistic Approach
In addition to its state broadband grant program, Illinois has introduced a portfolio of programs focused on local capacity building and planning (Illinois Connected Communities and Accelerate Illinois), regional engagement and resource integration (Broadband READY), digital literacy and skills building (Digital Navigators), and used computer refurbishment and distribution (Connect Illinois Computer Equity Network). These programs often combine state grant funding with stakeholder collaboration and expert consultation to put Illinois communities, organization, and households in a strong position to benefit from historic state and federal investment in broadband infrastructure and digital equity.
A Collaborative Approach
To make all of this possible, the Illinois Office of Broadband is working alongside public, private, nonprofit, and philanthropic partners to raise resources for and awareness of the digital equity challenges facing communities throughout the state. Initial collaborations have been critical to the success of the Connect Illinois program, and they include strategic cooperation with organizations and institutions such as: the Illinois-based Benton Institute for Broadband & Society; Heartland Forward; Illinois Innovation Network; PCs for People; University of Illinois Extension Service; and the University of Illinois System. In addition, the Office works closely with other state agencies, in particular the Department of Innovation & Technology, the Department of Transportation, and the State Board of Education.
To build on Illinois' own broadband mapping resources, to contribute additional data, research, and publication capacity, and to supplement Connect Illinois programming, the Office launched the Illinois Broadband Lab as a collaborative effort among the State of Illinois, university partners, and key stakeholders, including the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.
In addition to the Lab collaboration, the Benton Institute manages community planning and capacity programs on behalf of the Illinois Office of Broadband. These programs include Illinois Connected Communities, supported by local philanthropies, and the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program, funded by Heartland Forward's Connecting the Heartland Initiative. Finally, Benton publishes a newsletter, Illinois Broadband Connections, every two weeks which is delivered via email to subscribers and highlights the state's broadband efforts and federal and state programs and policies that might impact advances in broadband access, adoption, and utilization in Illinois.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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