Illinois Addresses the Digital Divide

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, August 14, 2020

Weekly Digest

Illinois Addresses the Digital Divide

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of August 10-14, 2020

Kevin Taglang

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed many hard truths, and one of them is our nation’s digital divide. In Illinois, the Office of Broadband, through its Connect Illinois broadband program, is working to ensure broadband use by everyone in the state. The country’s largest state-matching grant fund is designed to achieve ubiquitous broadband access through local initiatives, private investment, and partnerships of all kinds.

Today we take a quick break from federal digital divide efforts to focus on the work being done in Benton's home state.

Access to a reliable internet connection has never been more important. How can we expect students to be able to keep up with their peers without internet to pursue their coursework and learn? How can we expect businesses to stay afloat without connectivity to essential business tools and communication? The bottom line is: we can’t; we must do better and improve internet connectivity across the country, especially in our rural areas. -- Rep Lauren Underwood (D-IL)

Funding Broadband Infrastructure Construction

On June 24, Governor J.B. Pritzker (D-IL) announced $50 million in Connect Illinois grants to 28 projects touching every region of Illinois. These grants are the first round in Governor Pritzker’s $420 million statewide broadband expansion that seeks to bring basic broadband access to all communities in Illinois by 2024. Connect Illinois investments are an integral and strategic component of the comprehensive 2019 Rebuild Illinois infrastructure program and the state’s five-year economic plan. 

This first round of Connect Illinois grants is matched by $65 million in nonstate funding, with plans to expand access to more than 26,000 homes, businesses, farms, and community institutions across Illinois. The funds will support broadband network deployments over the next 12-18 months.

This is historic. Connect Illinois is the largest state matching grant program for broadband development in the nation's history. -- Gov. Pritzker

The state awarded grants to 18 different internet service providers, rural cooperatives, and local governments, with projects supporting fully scalable broadband infrastructure that will serve these areas for decades into the future. Illinois' longer-term universal access goal is 100/20 Mbps service throughout the state by 2028.

The Geneseo Rural Fiber-to-the-Home project is a first-round grant recipient. Geneseo Communications Inc. will pair a $5 million Connect Illinois grant with an $8.4 million nonstate match to serve approximately 4,000 businesses, farms, households, and anchor institutions in select areas of Henry and Rock Island counties located in northwestern Illinois.

“High-speed internet access is just as important to a farmer in Henry County as it is to a corporation in a downtown Chicago high-rise,” said Geneseo Communications CEO Mike McClain. “Due to the lack of density in most counties in Illinois, it is cost prohibitive to build direct fiber internet access to homes or farms. Connect Illinois and Geneseo Communications will build direct fiber and Gigabit-level internet speeds to select homes and farms in rural Henry and Rock Island Counties, putting our communities on a level playing field with the best-served cities across the globe.”

Although Connect Illinois could be a great partner with federal efforts to support rural broadband construction, the Federal Communications Commission's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) explicitly excludes any areas supported by state broadband programs. On April 9, the Illinois Office of Broadband urged the FCC to reconsider and expand its approach to state-federal partnerships. Illinois is one of over 30 states that manages its own broadband program -- many of which could provide matching funding for RDOF projects. The FCC and state authorities, the Illinois Office of Broadband suggests, could leverage their shared expertise and joint resources in order to maximize broadband infrastructure investments.

Mapping Broadband in Illinois

Effective broadband deployment efforts require accurate data incorporated into accurate maps. Existing broadband maps available to the public often overstate service and inaccurately paint large swaths of rural areas and entire urban blocks as having service that quite simply does not exist. These maps rely upon flawed data from the FCC’s Form 477, which report broadband service levels on a census-block basis.

The Illinois Office of Broadband is committed to producing maps that more accurately reflect reality. The Office of Broadband partnered with Connected Nation—a non-profit broadband mapping firm—to provide Illinois with more accurate maps of where broadband service is—and where it is not. Specifically, Connected Nation will: 1) identify and engage broadband providers and broadband infrastructure owners operating in Illinois; 2) collect and validate broadband deployment data (by technology and speed); and 3) prepare maps and data identifying available broadband service. The partnership will gather data collected from broadband providers which will be confirmed by field testing and consumer experience.

Illinois also joined Colorado, New Hampshire, Oregon, Wisconsin, and 13 other states that are partnering in the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The NBAM is a geographic information system platform that allows for the visualization and analysis of federal, state, and commercially available data sets. This includes data from the FCC, US Census Bureau, Universal Service Administrative Company, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ookla, Measurement Lab, and state governments. NBAM provides users, including administrators from the 18 participating states, with access to data to better inform broadband projects and funding decisions in their states.

Facilitating Community Broadband Planning

Gov. JB Pritzker
   Gov. Pritzker

Illinois Connected Communities is a partnership of the Illinois Office of Broadband, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, and local philanthropy. On July 9, Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the program's first recipients. This program directs $150,000 in state-funded, small grants to an inaugural cohort of 12 community and local government partners. 

  • Brown County School District 1
  • City of Harvey
  • Housing Authority of Champaign County
  • Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois
  • Mattoon School District 2
  • McKinley Park Development Council
  • Mercer County Better Together
  • Neighborhood Network Alliance
  • Palatine School District 15
  • Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163
  • Region 1 Planning Council (Winnebago County and City Rockford)
  • Village of Flanagan

On August 13, over 50  representatives of these communities met in a virtual kickoff meeting. Benton Institute’s Bill Coleman and Adrianne Furniss led an introductory presentation that provided an overview of the program, facilitated discussions on what communities are hoping to accomplish, and explained “Broadband 101” terms and concepts related to access, adoption, and use.

These partners will lead the development of strategic plans to enhance broadband capacity in their communities. Fifty hours of free, expert consultation and best-practice curriculum will help communities define their technology goals; measure current levels of broadband access, adoption, and use; and seek technical assistance and other funds to meet community needs. These grants will support our communities to think through broadband strategies and goals that will work best for them, inspire broad community involvement, and engage more stakeholders in building broadband capacity. 

The Illinois Connected Communities merit review process included a dedicated team of industry experts and community development professionals. Applications were scored based upon a set of criteria established in the Notice of Funding Opportunity, which included: anticipated impact, level of matching funds, community participation, project readiness, project sustainability, broadband adoption assistance, and employment of open access and shared use.

Selected communities will participate in a 12-month curriculum to foster authentic engagement in community broadband planning and capacity building. A representative Broadband Steering Committee will help cohort participants build a community-driven Broadband Strategic Plan. The plan will articulate the community’s broadband vision and identify an action plan for progress toward improved broadband access, adoption, and/or utilization in such areas as community and economic development, education, civic engagement, healthcare, agriculture, and more. The planning will also position the community to take next steps, including as applicants, or community partners to applicants, seeking Connect Illinois Broadband Grant infrastructure funding. Likewise, Illinois Connected Communities may apply for a second year of state funding specifically designated for community-driven efforts to promote digital literacy, adoption, and inclusion.

Connecting Illinois Students

Mayor Lightfoot
   Mayor Lightfoot

On June 25, Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot launched Chicago Connected, a program that will provide free high-speed internet service to approximately 100,000 eligible Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students in their households over four years. While the initial phase of Chicago Connected will provide wired internet access at speeds of 25/3 Mbps through Comcast and RCN, Chicago Connected will also extend existing hotspot service for students in temporary living situations.

This program will be one of the largest and longest-term digital equity efforts in the nation and help build a permanent public support system, prioritizing low-income families on Chicago's South and West Sides.

The City of Chicago worked with CPS and Chicago-area philanthropy to tackle the persistent access issue through a public-private investment in broadband, with philanthropic partners briding the program's initial costs.

Chicago Connected will provide connectivity by directly paying for a low-cost, high-speed internet service plan for families. In order to help facilitate the payments and various program components, Chicago Connected has enlisted United Way to serve as its fiscal agent to help administer the funds and monitor the program. By having United Way pay internet service providers directly, families will not receive a bill. 

Chicago Connected is estimated to cost about $50 million over the next four years. The costs of the first two years will be mainly funded by philanthropic partners, including $7.5 million from Ken Griff, $5 million from Crown Family Philanthropies, $2.5 million from the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund (through The Chicago Community Trust and United Way of Metro Chicago), $2 million from Illinois Tool Works, $1.5 million from the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, $500,000 from the JPB Foundation, and $250,000 from the Joyce Foundation. An additional joint commitment of $750,000 from former-President Brack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and The Chicago Community Trust to the Children First Fund (CFF), the independent partnership and philanthropy arm for Chicago Public Schools, will support outreach efforts by community-based organizations. 

These commitments, along with $5 million in federal Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars paid to the City of Chicago as a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, will cover costs for years one and two of the program. CPS will fund the program in years three and four. 

On the state level, on July 14 Governor Pritzker dedicated $108.5 million in federal Governor's Emergency Education Relief (GEER) Funds to preK-12 public education and institutions of higher education to meet the unique challenges of COVID-19 and ensure all students receive a quality education. 

K-12 Schools will receive $47.5 million in three areas to help close the digital divide. School districts will receive:

  • $32.5 million to purchase devices, such as laptops and tablets;
  • $7.5 million to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots and increase internet connectivity for students and families; and
  • $7.5 million in training for educators and parents to support students' growth holistically and strengthen their understanding of new technologies and learning models.

Higher education will see $49 million, including $46 million directly to public universities and community colleges. The funding targets institutions' efforts to overcome barriers facing students that have been created by the COVVID-19 pandemic. Uses could include access to laptops, wireless hotspots, advising, mentoring, tutoring, books, childcare, transportation, and various strategies to help with recruiting and retention.

"Despite the challenges fo COVID-19, I remain committed to a fundamental principle about education: every student, no matter where they live or the color of their skin or what their income level is, deserves a high-quality education from cradle to career. Using this funding to close the digital divide...allows us to advance that vision even in an extraordinary time," said Gov. Pritzker. 

A Comprehensive, Ongoing Strategy

The Illinois approach balances short-term solutions with long-term strategic investment to achieve improved broadband mapping, community planning and capacity building, ubiquitous broadband access, and sustainable digital equity. The Illinois broadband strategy is anchored by distinct, yet interdependent goals providing short-term basic access, ensuring longer-term high-speed access, and demonstrating broadband leadership in service to community and economic development.

Benton has a twice-monthly newsletter focused on the broadband efforts in Illinois. Sign-up at

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Aug 19 Building a Digital Ecosystem that Supports Kids and Families Well-being (Common Sense Media)

Aug 26 Mirrors and Windows: Why Kids Need to See Themselves Reflected in the Media They Watch (Common Sense Media)

Aug 27 Broadband Financing in Rural Areas and Indian Country (Office of the Comptroller of the Currency)



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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.