The COVID-19 pandemic has made broadband access critical for every household. Adrianne Benton Furniss has worked on internet connectivity in Illinois for almost 40 years. She appreciates seeing how the issue of getting everyone in Illinois online has landed in the spotlight.
“Broadband is a technology that enables people to safely work from home and consult their healthcare providers,” Furniss said. “If they have school children, they need distance learning. But there are so many people who are not connected, or not connected at speeds that are adequate enough to be able to do the things that shelter in place is requiring.”
Earlier this year, Illinois began a $400-million matching funds program – Connect Illinois – to expand internet networks in areas with the greatest needs. Private internet providers focus on the biggest profit-centered opportunities. Connect Illinois’ goal is to encourage building networks in less profitable areas.
Rural areas in Illinois have a two-pronged problem, Furniss said. The cost of installing broadband infrastructure is a multimillion-dollar investment. Getting enough subscribers to support broadband is difficult in areas with fewer people and low-income populations.
Illinois has begun a state mapping effort to determine where state investment makes the most sense.
“Anybody who is going to make a huge investment in broadband like the state of Illinois is doing currently is going to want to get a handle on what is really occurring on the ground,” Furniss said.
People assume that rural areas are unconnected or under-connected, and that is the case.
“However, a startling fact for people is that 43% of people who are not connected in the state reside in Cook County,” Furniss said.
Chicago is the least-connected big city in the country, Furniss said.
“The issue is affordability around actually subscribing to the network.”
People don’t have computers. Some of them don’t know how to use technology and many can’t afford to subscribe.
“Seventeen percent of people in Chicago don’t even have cell phone plans,” she said.
(Copyright WBGZ Radio / www.AltonDailyNews.com)
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