Howard, PCI’s Benton honored for ushering in a new era of Illinois Broadband supremacy

In an age when seniors might get looks of pity from younger tech heads hanging by the Apple Store, you might not realize that one woman who will turn 70 next year has been a prime mover in getting Illinois wired for the 21st Century.

Rep. Constance A. Howard (D-34th) of the Illinois General Assembly was honored Wednesday evening for her long record of accomplishment and efforts to close the digital divide and beef up the state’s broadband network. Howard led a panel of five state and federal political leaders as part of the Central Illinois Broadband Summit, held at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and hosted by Broadband Illinois.

Howard was presented with the first annual Charles Benton Broadband Leadership Award, named for the Chairman of Partnership for a Connected Illinois. Yet Benton was clearly moved and shocked when he received a PCI Lifetime Achievement Award for his service to the broadband cause.

“At this point of my life, it was not what I had in mind,” said Benton, who chairs the Benton Foundation and was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to chair the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. “But I got sucked in, and it is a great cause, there is no doubt in my mind that what we're doing can change lives.”

Benton received unabashed praise from Howard, who told him with a bracing hug, “You are a wonder.”

As for Howard, the African-American stateswoman who was a campaign coordinator with former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, she may be short in stature, but "she was one tough legislator when I served with her in Springfield," said Bob Flider, the broadband impact director at PCI.

Flider recalled conversations on legislation in the assembly's caucus room, where "always without fail, as the conversation would go forward, she would say, 'What about the digital divide? What about the people who need access to computers? They've got to be in this budget.'"

Howard, a Chicago native raised in Woodlawn, has made a mark as chair of the Computer Technology Committee in the state General Assembly. Under her leadership, the so-called “digital divide” between white and black citizens has crumbled, as Howard has championed equal access to computers and information technology, especially for African Americans.

“My wish was that every family in our state could have a home computer and access to the Internet,” said Howard, who is not seeking re-election. “I always introduced myself by saying that politicians of bygone years wanted a car invert garage, and a chicken in every pot. Connie Howard wanted a computer in every house.”

Yet at first, Howard told state politicians she wasn’t ready when they asked her to chair the Computer Technology committee in 1999. “I said, ‘I know I'm really not that smart when it comes to a computer; I know it goes on when you push a button.’ And they said ‘Don't worry, you'll get some help.’ And I decided to go for it because I knew I could do something about helping people who didn't have access to computers.”

Then came Y2K, and irrational fears that every computer in existence would crash. As a result, Howard spent most of her first year putting out a fire that never roared. “The year 2000 came, and we survived it,” Howard said. “We didn't stop existing, and we went forward.”

Perhaps the capstone in Howard’s long list of achievements came through her sponsorship of the Illinois Century Network, which aims to will usher statewide broadband into a new era. The Illinois Century Network includes a $96 million project funded with $62 million in federal funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce, along with matching funds from the state.

Scheduled for completion by September 2013, the federal project will be an open network with remarkable line speeds of 1GB. In so doing, it will encompass 400 community anchor institutions and more than 300 interconnection points.

Howard also expressed pride in her work with Eliminate the Digital Divide, a state program created with funds from a multi-million dollar court settlement with a major utility provider. “The work was gratifying because of the sense of accomplishment, that I had come closer to achieving my ultimate objective.”

And how. Working with other state leaders and tech experts, Howard saw African-American usage of high-speed Internet soar from 14 percent in 2005 to 40 percent in 2007, according to a study released by the Pew Foundation. That’s a remarkable achievement.

Howard’s work dovetails with federal goals as stated by President Barack Obama, to make sure 98 percent of Americans have Internet access within the next five years. While Obama’s predecessor scarcely even mentioned the words “information highway” during eight years in office, times have changed enough that Illinois politicians on Capitol Hill, even with inter-party squabbling, feel good about getting the Land of Lincoln linked up.

Justin Cajindos, representing U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), stressed that

“Senator Durbin’s number one priority has been growing our state's economy, and that's why he's been so passionate about growing broadband, especially in rural areas.”

With the loss of manufacturing and farming jobs over the last few decades, the senator “understands well what can stymie economic development in rural communities,” Cajindos said. “A lack of good-paying jobs results in a brain drain that forces people to move on. And a lot of companies site broadband access as one of their main reasons for locating in a certain area. This puts rural communities at a severe disadvantage.”

“There’s still a strong connection between broadband and employment growth,” said Jed Kolko, who in 2007 authored a seminal paper for the Public Policy Institute of California, "Why Should Governments Support Broadband Adoption?" Kolko’s work was cited as a template Wednesday for ongoing broadband research in Illinois—and those who attended the Champaign-Urbana summit might be pleased to know that Kolko thinks that the stakes for making broadband have only gotten higher since 2007.

“Technology industries are growing faster than the U.S. average, and the relationship between broadband and employment growth is even stronger for tech employment,” he said.  “And with unemployment still high, local investment in broadband would raise employment rather than bidding up wages as would happen in a tight labor market.”

Tags: Bob Flider, Broadband Illinois, Charles Benton, Connie Howard, Dick Durbin, Digital Divide, Illinois Century Network, Obama

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