Providing Free and Affordable Broadband for All in Illinois

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Digital Beat

Providing Free and Affordable Broadband for All in Illinois

Upon announcing the Connect Illinois broadband grant program in 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker 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. All projects receiving Connect Illinois funding must be scalable to service of at least 100/100 Mbps.

In order to achieve the goal of universal broadband for everyone in Illinois, broadband must be available and affordable. However, home broadband service is out of reach for many low-income households in Illinois that are unable to afford subscriptions. Therefore, efforts to promote universal broadband should include programs that offer access to affordable broadband service, as well as access to low-cost digital devices and digital literacy training, which have been highlighted as necessary to promote digital inclusion and meaningful broadband adoption.

In June 2020, the Illinois General Assembly directed the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council to study various questions related to broadband access and affordability, 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.

In Universal Broadband in Illinois: Studying the Costs of Providing Free and Affordable Service for All Residents, we present findings from our study on behalf of the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council of technology and internet adoption in Illinois and includes cost estimates for providing free broadband access as well as the alternative goal of providing affordable broadband access to all residents in the State, including in areas with high poverty levels. The study is unique in that it not only examines what the state needs to do to promote universal broadband infrastructure; it also considers universal broadband affordability and adoption. In other words, this report recognizes that broadband infrastructure is only “one side of the connectivity coin,” as Connect Illinois has identified in its strategic plan.

In pursuit of the Pritzker administration’s universal broadband goal to connect everyone in Illinois, this broadband access and affordability study (1) establishes a baseline against which future initiatives can be measured and (2) provides recommendations for next steps to be taken. It reflects the General Assembly’s interest in universal broadband, as evident in both the June 2020 legislation and the historic $420 million Connect Illinois funding commitment.

Internet and Technology Adoption in Illinois

Using data from the 2019 American Community Survey, we examined broadband and computer adoption in Illinois.

Key Findings:

  • 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.

Race, ethnicity, and age are important factors in internet and technology access and adoption

  • 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.

Another key finding concerns the “homework gap,” that is, those households in Illinois with children who do not have a high-speed subscription at home. Some 20.2% of households with children under the age of 18 do not have a wireline high-speed subscription. That is 285,419 households—or 19.8% of all households without such service in the state of Illinois. The homework gap, the focus of much current concern about the digital divide, applies to 1 in 5 households in Illinois.

Estimating the Costs of Universal, Affordable Broadband Access and Service

Both the Illinois General Assembly and this study distinguish access – broadband is available to households in a given area – from service – meaning that households subscribe to broadband.

Using recent adoption and availability data, two separate cost estimates are provided for offering free broadband internet service to all residents in Illinois. Various assumptions underly the findings – from the number of Illinois households lacking broadband access to provider pricing for shorter-term access to costs of longer-term broadband deployment. For this reason, cost estimates are presented as ranges, and the findings herein should be considered as guideposts directing future investment.

1. Free service to all Illinois residents with no infrastructure investment required, lending out hotspots or satellite equipment to those with no fixed broadband options (annual cost):

Based on our analysis, the total estimated cost of providing free internet service to Illinois households that currently have neither a device nor internet service is between $389 million and $867 million annually (depending on assumptions made about the underlying costs of providing devices and internet service).

To estimate the cost of providing free service to all Illinois residents, we must also consider those households that currently have service (and a device). The cost of providing free access for households that already subscribe to the internet and have a usable device is estimated to be between $2.975 billion and $3.397 billion. Combining the costs results in a total estimate of between $3.364 billion and $4.264 billion annually.

2. Free access and service to all Illinois residents by deploying wireline infrastructure in all currently unserved areas (one-time cost + annual cost for free service):

Based on this analysis, the total cost of providing a 25/3 connection to the current number of Illinois housing units currently estimated as lacking it is between $306 million and $485 million. The lower end of this estimate is built from December 2019 FCC Form 477 data, and it assumes that the future costs to cover unserved households will be the same as recent grant awards. Both of these assumptions are optimistic. Adjustments to this baseline will lead to higher estimates. The higher-end estimate reported here ($485 million) assumes that the FCC data overstate availability for 20,000 housing units and that the cost per household increases by 25%. The cost of upgrading all housing units to a 100/20 connection is estimated to be four to six times as large: between $1.410 billion and $1.865 billion.

We then estimate the annual cost to provide all households with free service, which can now be estimated under the assumption that everyone will have a fixed broadband connection available to them. We estimate that the total annual cost of free broadband service for Illinois households, assuming wired connectivity available to all of the 4,866,014 total households in 2019, would cost $3.286 billion.

Affordable Broadband Service

The study estimates the annual cost of 1) affordable broadband service for all Illinois residents and 2) affordable service for only those in poverty. but it assumes that Connect Illinois would subsidize the cost of monthly service so that households would only pay either $10 or $25. When combined with households that currently pay for an internet connection, the full costs of supporting such a program are shown in our analysis. Those households that are already connected with a device are assumed to have their monthly costs subsidized so that they pay only $10 and $25 per month, respectively.

We estimate that the total annual cost of a subsidy to bring monthly broadband service priced at $10 per month for the total 4,866,014 households in 2019 would be between $2.781 billion and $3.680 billion and the total annual cost of a subsidy to bring monthly broadband service priced at $25 per month would be between $2 billion and $2.804 billion. Finally, there are an estimated 651,285 Illinois households in poverty. Of those, 149,796 are ‘fully disconnected’ (meaning they have neither internet service nor a computing device) and 83,423 are ‘internet insufficient’ (meaning they have no internet service but do have access to a computing device).  For these 233,219 'fully disconnected' and 'internet insufficient' households, it would cost the state between $16.4 million and $134.8 million annually to provide subsidized monthly service.


These recommendations unfold in the context of initiatives undertaken to improve broadband in Illinois. Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Illinois General Assembly have committed to invest $420 million in broadband for the state. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 directed $200 million in broadband funding to the state, resources leveraged by accompanying state investments. Many of these investments in network infrastructure improved connectivity for schools, libraries, higher education, and households in the state. Other investments helped Illinois’s neediest households discover the value of the internet. Against this backdrop of past progress, the following recommendations seek to build and expand upon these earlier investments.

The State of Illinois should take the following steps to promote universal broadband:

  1. Continue to offer competitive matching grants. In order to address the cost of deploying broadband networks to reach all Illinois households, the State should continue to offer competitive, broadband deployment matching grants through Connect Illinois. The State should fully utilize the Connect Illinois funds appropriated by the General Assembly as part of Governor Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois capital investment strategy while also pursuing federal funding opportunities and encouraging continued private investment. The State should keep its focus not only on ensuring that all Illinois households have access to 25/3 Mbps wireline service by 2024 but also on the longer-term goal of connecting all households in Illinois with broadband of at least 100/20 Mbps over networks that can scale to at least 100/100 Mbps by 2028.18
  2. Support development of affordable network alternatives for Illinois residents. Internet service is out of financial reach for many Illinois households; many homes are in areas with a single (often unaffordable) provider. Given broadband adoption gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines, the State should support community-driven initiatives to introduce more affordable options, expand choice, and drive broadband adoption. There have been a number of publicly funded broadband initiatives across Illinois over the past decade. The State should take steps to facilitate deployment of affordable, high-speed, and high-quality wireline or wireless networks.
  3. Establish a state digital inclusion coordinator. The Illinois Digital Inclusion Coordinator should be integrated into overall statewide broadband planning, highlighting the digital inclusion implications of broadband policy initiatives and other state policy initiatives that rely on broadband (e.g., government service delivery). The coordinator would develop relationships, partnerships, and programs to promote digital inclusion across the state.
  4. Fund partnerships for digital inclusion. Illinois should support, in partnership with philanthropic organizations, community-based nonprofits that provide digital skills training and tech support for low-income households.
  5. Increase public awareness of affordability programs. Many eligible households may not be aware of discount broadband internet access service plans or may experience difficulty in signing up. Policymakers and other stakeholders should encourage awareness of these programs. Policymakers should also work with providers to create these programs and to ease the process of qualifying and signing up for these offers.
  6. Improve the pipeline of computing devices. Stakeholders should explore ways to expand low-cost computing programs to all parts of Illinois to meet growing demands that the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred. This includes efforts such as the State’s current work with PCs for People to refurbish computers for nonprofits and low-income individuals.


The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the significant stakes of the digital divide, with far too many Illinoisans lacking critical broadband access for remote learning, telehealth, or work from home opportunities. Understandably, the federal policy response has focused on shorter-term broadband fixes that provided relatively immediate relief versus longer-term broadband solutions designed for sustainable access. The study discerns such shorter-term fixes from longer-term solutions while recognizing the value and complementary nature of both approaches.

This study can be viewed as the beginning of a timely and comprehensive conversation about broadband access, adoption, and affordability. While some costs might be considered aspirational or even prohibitive, others are well within the realm of doable – in terms of programmatic capacity, scope, and cost. For example, the annual cost of providing affordable broadband to Illinois households in poverty that lack broadband service.

The full study is available through the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Development. It includes a breakdown of our estimates for each of Illinois' ten Economic Development Regions.

John B. Horrigan is a Senior Fellow at the Technology Policy Institute, with a focus on technology adoption, digital inclusion, and evaluating the outcomes and impacts of programs designed to promote communications technology adoption and use. Horrigan is also currently a consultant to the Urban Libraries Council. He served at the Federal Communications Commission as a member of the leadership team for the development of the National Broadband Plan. Additionally, he has served as an Associate Director for Research at the Pew Research Center, where he focused on libraries and their impact on communities, as well as technology adoption patterns and open government data.

Brian Whitacre is a Professor and Jean & Patsy Neustadt Chair in the department of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.  Brian’s main area of interest is rural economic development, with a focus on the role that technology can play.  He has published over 60 peer-reviewed journal articles, with most exploring the relationship between Internet access and rural development. He has won regional and national awards for his research, teaching, and extension programs, and currently serves on Oklahoma’s Rural Broadband Expansion Council.    

Colin Rhinesmith is an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. He is also the Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Community Informatics. Rhinesmith has been a Google Policy Fellow and an Adjunct Research Fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute. He was also a Faculty Research Fellow with the Benton Foundation (now the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society) and a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Information in Society Fellow and a Research Scholar with the Center for Digital Inclusion.

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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