Broadband coverage strong across rural Illinois

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — For farmers and other rural residents in Illinois, high-speed Internet access is not only desirable, it’s virtually a necessity. Fortunately, coverage is keeping pace with need.

“Illinois is very well connected. There is only about 1 percent of households that don’t have access to some form of broadband that’s not satellite or cellular,” said Brian Webster of Partnership for a Connected Illinois. “It’s part of critical infrastructure, just like electricity, water and telephone service.”

The organization monitors Internet access across Illinois as part of a federal initiative to compile a national coverage map. The state organization — also referred to as Broadband Illinois — is operating in the final year of a five-year, $6.5 million federal grant funded with stimulus money.

There are about 200 Internet service providers across Illinois. Broadband Illinois’ mandate is to collect the information, put it on maps and share it with the federal government. Only six months remain on the federal contract with the organization, but the state of Illinois has agreed to fund the group for another year.

“We also do analysis on the state level,” Webster said. “We assist the governor’s office or anyone else who wants to look at the data. Many people want to know where we stand in comparison to other communities in the state and nationally.”

Phil Halstead, Broadband Illinois’ executive director, agrees that the state’s Internet access has greatly improved in the past few years.

“Illinois has had a dramatic increase in high-speed Internet coverage,” he said. “We have a map showing how the unserved spaces have shrunk to almost non-existent. Information is power.”

High-speed connections including cellular signals are a critical component of modern agriculture.

“The agriculture industry relies heavily on mobile data because they’re multi-tasking,” Webster said. “While they’re out there sitting in their precision-guided tractors they are also checking on weather conditions or doing their email and running their business.

“Not only do they need good home or office broadband connections, but we’ve discovered through our studies over the years that the agriculture industry does rely heavily on cellular mobile data.”

One organization in the forefront of broadband delivery in rural areas is ConnectSI, a non-profit group promoting economic development in the state’s 20 southernmost counties. The steady advance of technology has resulted in changing needs, even in the definition of services.

“ConnectSI was developed for delivering — or assisting in — the delivery, expansion and adoption of broadband,” said Steve Mitchell, who oversees broadband services for the organization. “That was one of our primary focuses. We’re also focused on expansion of healthcare, access to high-quality healthcare. People these days are becoming more and more reliant on broadband.”

The definition of broadband has been a moving target.

“It has changed over the years,” Mitchell said. “It used to be anything faster than 256K. Now, with the various applications like Netflix and that sort of thing, 1 meg to 3 meg is pretty much the lower level these days.”

Delivery of broadband to rural areas can be challenging, especially in the hilly, forested areas of southern Illinois. Fortunately for rural residents across the state, there are dozens of small, wireless carriers catering to their needs.

Wireless carriers typically are small operations serving just a few hundred customers. But they are an important component to the Internet map of Illinois, Mitchell believes.

“The small, wireless mom-and-pops are extremely vital to getting broadband out to rural areas,” he said. “The broadband landscape has changed tremendously since 2007, when we started. Nearly every incorporated community in southern Illinois now has access to at least one form of broadband, whether that’s DSL through your phone lines or cable-based or wireless.

“Our local telephone companies, primarily Frontier, have been hugely instrumental in extending DSL services throughout the area. But it is the locally owned wireless companies that have done outstanding work in expanding broadband access to the very sparsely populated areas that larger companies wouldn’t necessarily be able to go to because it’s a smaller return on their investment.”

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