The Plan for a Connected Illinois

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Digital Beat

The Plan for a Connected Illinois

 All 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico are currently working on digital equity plans. As they release draft plans seeking public feedback, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is sharing summaries focused on how states define their digital divides and their vision for reaching digital equity.

Illinois is home to over 12.7 million individuals in approximately 4.9 million families who speak over 20 languages. These families live in 102 counties that range from the dense urban areas found in Cook, DuPage, and Lake counties to the rural areas in Pope and Stark counties; from Illinois’ manufacturing centers like the Quad Cities, Rockford, and Greater Peoria regions to the farmlands of Gallatin, White, and Sangamon counties. Common to all of these communities and geographies is the way they stay connected to each other and to the broader global community; how they access healthcare, education, and other essential services; and, increasingly, how they sustain their livelihoods within the digital economy: by using high-speed internet in our homes and community anchor institutions. 

Over the next 10 years, Illinois intends to measure and track progress toward meeting three goals:

  1. Ensuring universal access to high-speed broadband that is affordable, reliable, and fully scalable for residences, businesses, and community anchor institutions (CAIs) across Illinois by 2030.
  2. Leveraging new and existing resources to advance the adoption of internet use through targeted digital-inclusion strategies and sustainable broadband-equity outcomes to help communities identify and address current gaps in broadband equity.
  3. Empowering all Illinoisans to use and participate fully in an increasingly digital economy and society.

Achieving digital equity in Illinois will ultimately result from the collaborative work of thousands of leaders, practitioners, researchers, and program designers across the state, with guidance from experts across the nation. The Illinois Office of Broadband aspires to lead a program that:

  • Learns from and supports the decades of experience of digital equity practitioners, who have been doing the work in and with local communities.
  • Supports the development of innovative programs that draw from the practices of social innovation.
  • Allows practitioners to test and learn—enabled by data—while respecting digital learners’ privacy.
  • Evaluates programs holistically, incorporating culturally relevant assessment approaches.

The Illinois Office of Broadband now seeks public comment on the draft Illinois State Digital Equity Plan. The goal of the draft Illinois State Digital Equity Plan is to enable populations with the education and tools necessary to fully leverage digital assets that are powered by reliable, high-speed internet, so that all Illinoisians can fully participate in the digital economy and the digital ecosystem. The Office of Broadband is accepting feedback on the draft plan through COB on January 31, 2024.

Vision of Digital Equity

Illinois’ vision for broadband deployment and digital equity is:

Connect Illinois seeks to (A) ensure universal access to high-speed broadband that is affordable, reliable, and fully scalable for residences, businesses, and community anchor institutions (CAIs) across Illinois. At the same time, Connect Illinois plans to promote digital literacy, adoption, and inclusion while leveraging investment in new broadband infrastructure to spur advances in economic development, as well as innovation in healthcare delivery, education, and agriculture.

At its core, the push toward universal access to high-speed broadband infrastructure is one of broadband equity: targeting resources to close gaps and expand opportunity for unserved and underserved communities throughout Illinois. The Connect Illinois digital equity programming and collaborations are a comprehensive approach designed to ensure the state (B) leverages new and existing resources for adoption through targeted digital inclusion strategies and sustainable broadband equity outcomes to help communities identify and address existing broadband equity gaps, and to (C) empower all Illinoisans to utilize and participate fully in an increasingly digital economy and society.

To achieve this vision, Illinois must leverage new and existing resources for adoption and use through targeted strategies for digital inclusion and sustainable outcomes in broadband equity. Doing so will help communities identify and address current gaps in broadband equity. Illinois also must continue to push for universal access to high-speed broadband infrastructure, which is essential to realizing the state's aspirations for digital equity.

The Digital Divide in Illinois

Today, 2.9 million Illinois residents in 1.3 million households lack a subscription to high-speed internet in their homes. This gap may be caused by one or more inter-related factors:

  • Availability of broadband infrastructure: five percent of broadband-serviceable locations (BSLs) in Illinois do not have access to 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps) internet service and are categorized as “unserved” by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Some four percent of BSLs do not have access to 100/20 Mbps internet service and are thus categorized as “underserved.”
  • Affordability of internet subscriptions: 17 percent of Illinois residents find it difficult to afford their internet bill, and 14 percent have experienced interruptions in service because they had difficulty paying.
  • Access to devices: Just 79 percent, or 3.9 million, of Illinois households have access to either a desktop or a laptop.
  • Low levels of digital literacy: 11 percent of Illinoisans report that they have difficulty completing at least one of the surveyed tasks related to the internet.

These gaps are even more stark among Illinoisans who are members of covered populations as defined by the federal Digital Equity Act:

  • Individuals who live in low-income households are seven percent more likely than the average Illinoisan to believe that having internet service is “not worth the trouble.” 
  • Black or African Americans are five percent more likely than the average Illinoisan to experience service interruptions due to difficulties in paying for service.
  • Hispanic Illinoisans are 14 percent more likely than the average Illinoisan to find it difficult to fit a monthly internet bill into their household budget. 
  • Aging individuals are 14 percent more likely than the average Illinoisan to worry about how to use computers and the internet.
  • Individuals in rural areas are four percent more likely than the average Illinoisan to have trouble getting internet services installed at their residence. 
  • Individuals with a language barrier have limited access to digital resources for device troubleshooting and digital literacy training. 
  • Veterans are five percent less likely to adopt broadband as compared to the average Illinoisan.
  • Individuals with disabilities are 15 percent less likely to adopt broadband and 15 percent less likely to have access to internet-enabled devices as compared to the average Illinoisan.
  • Justice-impacted individuals have extensive needs for digital learning as part of re-entry into society and to support their efforts to find and acquire jobs.

The Illinois Digital Equity Plan

To build on Illinois' own broadband mapping resources, to contribute additional data, research, and publication capacity, and to supplement Connect Illinois programming, the Illinois Office of Broadband 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.

To fuel and sustain efforts to meet the state's broadband goals and objectives, and in partnership with the digital equity practitioners and other stakeholders in the state, the Illinois Office of Broadband (IOB) plans to conduct the following five core activities:

  1. Maintain and make available Illinois’ digital equity data sets to serve as a common source of information. To provide a common fact base for the state’s digital equity practitioners, the IOB and the Illinois Broadband Lab (IBL) will create and maintain a publicly available dataset and tools for practitioners around the state; a public-facing dashboard to track key metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs); a public-facing asset inventory; and ongoing updates to the IL State Digital Equity Plan (SDEP).
  2. Lead select state-wide programming and university partnerships. The IOB/IBL will coordinate state-wide programming on high-priority, state-wide and regional projects and establish research partnerships with universities, some of which will be coordinated with other state agencies.
  3. Execute a state-wide digital equity grant program. The IOB/IBL will facilitate a digital equity grant program to fund and provide resources for digital equity programs around the state.
  4. Conduct ongoing stakeholder outreach and engagement. The IOB/IBL will conduct and support stakeholder engagement across regions and in communities to ensure that the voices of residents and digital equity practitioners continue to be heard and to shape digital equity priorities and approaches.
  5. Support and sustain a digital equity community of practice. The IOB/IBL will foster partnerships and collaboration between new and existing organizations so that they may share their knowledge and resources to expand their impact.

1. Digital Equity Source of Truth

The IOB and the IBL plan to maintain publicly available dashboards and asset inventories that statewide partners can use to establish baselines and track progress on digital equity in Illinois. These tools will incorporate multiple metrics related to access, adoption, devices, and more—all of which will align with the state’s broadband priorities. The resulting information and insights will allow the state to allocate funds appropriately, so that every Illinoisan has access to high-speed internet. Key steps in creating this digital equity source of truth include:

  • Creation and maintenance of a public-facing dashboard to track key metrics and KPIs
  • Creation and maintenance of a public-facing asset inventory
  • Ongoing updates to the IL SDEP

2. State and University Partnerships

While much of the work targeted for support by the IOB/IBL will take place at the local level, the IOB/IBL will lead several initiatives directly, in partnership with state agencies and universities at the state-wide level. The state will engage with relevant stakeholders to:

  • Support state agencies in implementing the digital literacy components of their strategic plans and programming portfolios, like the DCEO’s Office of Employment and Training (OET)’s digital literacy components in its State of Illinois WIOA Unified State Plan and workforce programming.
  • Collaborate with manufacturing-focused organizations like the Illinois Manufacturer’s Association (IMA) or the IMA Education Foundation (IMAEF) to scale programs that increase digital literacy skills in the manufacturing workforce.
  • Support EV and clean energy-focused initiatives like the state’s Electrify Illinois or DCEO’s CEJA Workforce Program to integrate digital literacy skill-building into its training programs.
  • Collaborate with state agencies (e.g., DCEO, ICCB, Illinois Department of Employment Security [IDES], and IDHS) to scale digital literacy and workforce development programs.
  • Work with local governments to share best practices and to encourage residents to attend educational workforce development programs through scholarships, internships, and employer incentives.
  • Work with state agencies (e.g., the IDES, the IDES American Job Centers, and DCEO’s workNet Center) to share and promote digital economy opportunities with job-seekers.

Examples of current work led by the state broadband office include:

  • Broadband READY: Established in 2020, the Broadband READY program is made up of ten distinct regions spanning the entire state. Each READY region has local reach and community presence, which the IBL plans to expand through this work. In highly active cities and counties of the state, the IBL will also work directly with established digital equity programs.
  • Digital Equity Capacity Kickstarter Program represents an integral and strategic component of the state’s Connect Illinois vision and commitment to broadband access and use. Grantees are awarded funding to 1) Facilitate awareness of and enrollment in low-cost broadband programs, such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), 2) Serve as primary point of contact for community members seeking guidance and support for digital literacy, digital skill-building, device access, and home broadband needs, 3) Establish, administer, and expand Community Technology Centers (CTCs) to support basic computer literacy training programs, and 4) Identify and advance a community’s vision and goals for broadband access.
  • Digital Navigator Program: A statewide cohort of digital navigator fellows plan and coordinate local digital equity programs.

3. Digital Equity Competitive Grant Program

Adequate resourcing is critical to successfully achieving the state’s digital equity goal. IOB and IBL intend to run a digital equity competitive grant program that will fund community-driven, well designed, and compelling programming. This core activity will:

  • Provide funding to support high-performing programs that have a track record of measurable success and support from the communities they serve.
  • Seed and support new, innovative programs that take a test-and-learn approach.
  • Encourage collaborative partnerships.
  • Institute performance measures and reporting mechanisms that incorporate the principles of culturally relevant evaluation.

While IO/IBL will run the statewide competitive grant program, regional and local partners will be engaged to provide technical assistance to local applicants and will also share relevant regional context with IBL to support its decision-making.

4. Stakeholder Engagement

Stakeholder engagement will remain a core activity throughout the implementation process so that feedback on IBL programming and practices can influence the direction of programming. To actively engage a diverse group of stakeholders, the IBL will continue to involve representatives from the following groups: (1) government entities, including local government bodies and state agencies; (2) service providers; (3) other private companies, including small businesses; (4) non-profits and community organizations; and (5) residents and the organizations that serve them, with a focus on engaging members of covered populations.

5. Community of Practice

Increased funding and programming for digital equity will open up opportunities to build systems in which best practices, lessons learned, and potential improvements can be shared, compiled, enhanced, and disseminated. The State of Illinois plans to foster partnerships and collaboration between new and existing organizations so that they may expand their impact by sharing knowledge and resources. Creating partnerships with local digital equity champions will strengthen individual programs and benefit the broader digital equity system as a whole. Leaders of different programs across regions will have a venue for learning about what is working and what is being tested in different parts of the state. Over time, as the state gathers these insights on best practices and effective solutions, the resulting findings can shape programs and improve their outcomes.

The IBL anticipates that “communities of practice” can be supported at a regional level and can include members of local organizations, nonprofits, libraries, universities, community governments, and community members. Through quarterly or monthly meetings, these communities could share findings and best practices, build capabilities within and across the community, and leverage local experts and support networks. The state expects to convene periodic, state-wide meetings to strengthen communities of practice.

Regular Evaluation and Updates

Critical to the State Digital Equity Plan’s overall success—which depends on making measurable progress toward our objectives and goals—is the state’s ability to understand the funded programs’ outcomes and impact, and then to correct and/or update programs and plans based on those findings. To accomplish this goal, the IOB will incorporate mechanisms to regularly evaluate and update the plan.

To update the plan, IOB will:

  • Require multi-year subgrantees to submit periodic reports, including any project/program modifications: These reports will be incorporated into the state’s revisions to its plan and will allow the IBL to update plans to reflect component programs’ anticipated trajectory.
  • Seek and incorporate feedback for plan updates: The IBL expects to pair plan updates with stakeholder engagement to allow for public comment on proposed plan updates.
  • Revise SDEP to reflect new information and ideas: The IBL will incorporate identified needs, updates on progress, stakeholder feedback, and revised approaches and goals to ensure that plan updates are both comprehensive and aspirational.

Illinois Seeks Feedback

The Illinois Office of Broadband seeks public comment on the state's draft digital equity plan. Please submit comments by 5 pm CT on Wednesday, January 31, 2024 at this link.

Editor's note: The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society manages community broadband planning programs in coordination with the Illinois Office of Broadband and with a variety of state collaborators including University of Illinois Extension. These programs have included Illinois Connected Communities, supported by local philanthropies, and the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program, funded by Heartland Forward's Connecting the Heartland Initiative. The Benton Institute is now running an ag-focused community engagement and broadband planning program, Broadband Breakthrough, with funding from the Illinois Soybean Association. 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. 

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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
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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