Both the U.S. and Illinois governments want to get broadband internet service to rural, underserved, and in some cases unserved, areas, and money by the bushel basketfuls is available to make it …
Both the U.S. and Illinois governments want to get broadband internet service to rural, underserved, and in some cases unserved, areas, and money by the bushel basketfuls is available to make it happen.
Maybe — depending on who gets the money and the location.
Bill Coleman of the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society met with a group of approximately 30 Edgar County residents Thursday, March 16, at the Edgar County Farm Bureau to discuss the issue and potential strategies. Those attending the meeting represented health, education, emergency services, business, local governments, economic development and agricultural interests.
Prior to meeting with the larger group, Coleman discussed issues with a smaller committee that has been studying the problem as part of an Illinois Soybean Association effort to develop an accurate picture of rural broadband in Illinois.
Coleman’s comments were both cautionary and encouraging.
He said during a previous effort to improve the internet, big telecommunication companies glommed onto the money, made some improvement in select locations, and called it good without getting into the hinterlands.
The encouragement he shared is there are places where local governments decided this is too important an issue to leave to the private sector or not-for-profit cooperatives, akin to rural electric or rural telephone, sprung up to meet local needs.
“The big companies’ philosophy is they don’t want public involvement,” said Coleman. “Their attitude is if they can’t do it, nobody should.”
He acknowledged in the end the only option may be working with a large company, but other avenues are worthy of exploration.
“The closer you get to a local provider, the better the results are over time,” he said.
He added experience has shown the larger publicly traded companies prime concern is a quick return on investment for shareholders and service comes lower down on the list of priorities.
Coleman confirmed Edgar County is in the preliminary stage of seeking better internet and the project could last seven, or more, years to bring everything together. Funding will come in blocks meaning the county will be developed addressed in stages. Some areas may be served by fiber optic connections, and others may require more wireless broadband. Either situation, however, requires the development of additional infrastructure.
“The time to have started this was five years ago,” Coleman said.
One difficulty is the definition of broadband is a moving target. At one time, broadband was considered anything with a download speed of 25 megabits per second (mbps). That is now too slow to qualify. Coleman said Illinois has called for rural services to provide broadband with a download speed of 100 mbps and an upload speed of 20 mbps by 2026. Other locations are demanding a goal of 100 mbps each way as the minimum.
“It is possible to do 100 symmetrical of fixed wireless, but we are now seeing 10 gigabit on fiber,” he said. “The gap is getting bigger.”
That gap between what is available elsewhere and what is offered in the rural areas is a concern for ag-based companies. Coleman said John Deere is moving to install satellite links on its equipment because wireless broadband is so ineffective in rural areas. While satellite internet is fast for download of data, the upload is slow.
Places that do not have access to high-speed reliable broadband area already behind in areas of economic development, health access and educational services, and it will only get worse. Broadband brings multiple economic advantages. Referring to studies by Western Illinois University, Coleman said farmers that have broadband access have more productive operations with better yields and higher incomes.
In his home state of Minnesota, areas getting fiber optic networks have experienced business development, economic growth and increased home values at a faster rate than locations where the big telecoms are not improving their infrastructure.
There is not a single formula for how to develop better internet that works in every location. Coleman has seen several different plans through his work with the Benton Institute:
nSome local governments go into business as the internet provider.
nSome counties opt to build the infrastructure through the use of bond sales or levying special taxes and then lease operation of the service to a provider.
nSome counties offer services such as staff grant writers to help secure funding, Some counties have hired a staff person to spearhead the entire effort.
nSome county governments take a hands-off approach, assuming the private sector and market place will eventually resolve the issue at an undetermined time in the future.
“You have to create your own customized plan, but don’t invest in something that will need replaced in three-to-five years,” he said. “I think having a county plan and community backing can help in finding providers.”
The Edgar County committee that started the research is still gathering survey information to show the state of internet service in the county which in turn becomes future data for seeking grants. Take the survey at http://go.illinois.edu/highspeedforedgar, use the QR code or paper surveys are available at The Prairie Press, 101 N. Central, Paris, for people whose internet is too weak or not available.
Coleman encouraged everyone present to get involved with the effort for improving internet service.
“If you don’t work on it, you will never get it fixed,” he said.