Greater Peoria EDC, Tazewell County Aim To Improve Rural Broadband Access
The first steps toward improving broadband access in rural portions of Tazewell County are moving forward with help from a $15,000 state grant.
Tazewell County Board Chairman Dave Zimmerman said the initial funding from the Illinois Connected Communities program to the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council will help determine the full price tag for a potential broadband expansion.
“We're going to spend about $3,000-5,000 of that money to hire a consulting firm to see how much it would cost for Tazewell County to kind of build a backbone of fiber throughout the county, and that would probably follow most of our major county roads,” said Zimmerman, noting the county could direct some of its federal American Rescue Plan relief funding toward the project. “So that'll give us a better idea on where we can go from there.”
Casey Peterson, director of rural outreach and development for the EDC, is overseeing the effort. He plans to use a portion of the initial grant to put together a steering committee that includes residents who are currently underserved.
Peterson said the biggest service gaps right now are in the southern part of the county.
“Most of the communities — the communities themselves, like a Delavan or like a Hopedale — they are, within the city limits, served currently by Mediacom, which is fairly quick internet because Mediacom is running on the municipal copper that they've used for cable TV for the last 50 years,” said Peterson.
“But once you get one block outside of town, you have zero options outside of satellite and cellular. So, we don't know, unfortunately, how many homes that is, and that's another reason we need to hire this consultant to figure that out. Then we need to pick off kind of the optimal routes for running these fiber cables in the ground.”
Zimmerman said the onset of COVID-19 and residents sheltering at home highlighted the need to improve connectivity across the county.
“I think this last year really drove home the need for broadband, not only for school, but you know, just for streaming, for telehealth, you go down the list,” he said. “It really is something that's needed desperately in the rural areas.”
Echoing Zimmerman, Peterson said the pandemic-driven increased demand for internet access created a “perfect storm” for several reasons.
“One, because this digital divide has never been so apparent, where you have folks who aren't connected are losing out on so many aspects of not only economic indicators, but also health and education and everything in between,” said Peterson. “I work with a community of about 100 homes out in rural Tazewell County; it's a subdivision that has zero fixed internet options, and that's really hurting the resale of their homes.”
Jason Catton, president of the Peoria Area Association of Realtors, agreed that property values are starting to get impacted by the quality of internet access.
“Definitely, demand is much higher. Years ago, I don't think it was so much something that people looked at that much; you know, maybe (having) that rural property was more important,” said Catton. “But as you see technology and the way of life now, with security systems, cameras, systems, streaming, there's definitely a larger demand for that now.
“I think some buyers will look around to find something for what they need. If two houses are very comparable, one on fiber, one not on fiber, the house on fiber is probably going have more value to that buyer.”
Zimmerman said the county has four years to use its $25 million in American Rescue Plan money, and exploring other funding avenues also is an option.
“The other nice thing in working with the local EDC is that they're going to help us apply for other grants, and there are some grants out there,” said Zimmerman. “One is a national telecommunication grant that actually will only require a 10% match. So say the cost of the project was $20 million … if we could get this grant, it would cost us $2 million and this grant would cover the other $18 million.”
Peterson said a project like this would not be something that would require regular large-scale upgrades.
“The goal is we do this once, with fiber in the ground and fixed connections, and then we don't have to have to do it again in our lifetimes,” said Peterson. “You know, fiber is going to be good for the next century, and we don't really know what the internet is going to be like in 10, 20, 30 years down the road. But we do know that a fiber backbone should be able to support it.”