Editorial: Connect Illinois spurs hopes for bridging state's digital divide

Editorial: Connect Illinois spurs hopes for bridging state's digital divide


For Illinoisans in urban areas, the biggest challenge in getting broadband is deciding which provider to choose.

Not so for too many rural residents who lack any broadband access at all and for others for whom dial-up access comes at high costs and slow speeds that make using it challenging and time-consuming.

In states dominated by urban centers, such as Chicago, bridging the chasm between wireless haves and have-nots has never gotten the government attention and investment required to attack the complex technological issue.

We have high hopes that Illinois' effort to bridge the technological divide will accelerate dramatically now that Gov. J.B. Pritzker has launched Connect Illinois, a $420 million statewide broadband expansion strategy.

Last week, the Chicago Democrat made good on a key campaign promise in kicking off the initiative and making the final appointments to the Broadband Advisory Council. That group is now charged with crafting a plan and making it happen using Rebuild Illinois funds approved by state lawmakers last month.

The panel will focus, appropriately, on three areas where the digital divide is most prominent and damaging: education, telehealth and economic development.

Take schools, for example, where the homework gap leaves behind 17% of U.S. students who lack access to computers, and the 18% without broadband access that leaves far too many kids to do homework on tiny digital screens at agonizingly slow dial-up speeds. Both those situations put underserved kids at a decided and potentially lasting disadvantage to their more well-connected classmates.

In addition, lack of health care connectivity keeps rural areas with little or no immediate access to doctors and hospitals from taking full advantage of a growing telehealth network to keep us safer and healthier in more economical and easily accessible ways.

Lack of high-speed, wireless internet access also hurts rural businesses and prevents communities from attracting and retaining the people and businesses they need to remain viable, let alone grow.

It would be a mistake to assume that only people in remote areas of deep southern Illinois are unplugged and at risk. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 24% of Americans say getting connected to the internet is a major problem in their community. And BroadbandNow reports that 843,000 Illinoisans lack access to a wired connection capable of 25Mbps download speeds; 1 million Illinoisans have access to only one wired provider, leaving them no options to switch; and 321,000 Illinois residents have zero wired internet providers available where they live.

Quality education, good health and economic opportunity should not be contingent on geography. Some will suggest that ensuring access to the necessary networks is best left to the private sector. And there is evidence that in many cases, private providers have been the answer. Consider, for example, that internet access has nearly doubled overall since 2007.

But rural areas lack the volume of customers and infrastructure needed to make such rural investment viable for for-profit companies.

Connect Illinois would attack that by dedicating $400 million to partnering with internet service providers to build 21st century infrastructure that  connects communities to high-speed internet across the state. An additional $20 million is to go to improving the Illinois Century Network, which connects K-12 schools and higher education to public libraries, museums, state and local governments and the health care community.

The success of this essential initiative is now in the hands of the council, which is charged with delivering its report to the governor and General Assembly on Dec. 31, 2019.

We look forward to reading it, and to seeing an effective plan for executing it that can begin to grow every part of Illinois starting Jan. 1, 2020.


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