An effort is underway to improve rural Internet access in Tazewell County. Resident input is needed
It's still a challenge to obtain reliable high-speed Internet access in some rural parts of Tazewell County. A group is working to change that.
The Tazewell County Broadband Committee is currently collecting survey data to identify underserved areas throughout the county.
It's a problem committee member Eric Stahl knows about first-hand.
"I've lived in Tazewell County for 25 years. And I've never had decent Internet. I lived in town in Delavan. I lived out in the country in Green Valley. Now I live out in the country outside of Tremont. Never had decent Internet," he said. "And COVID really exacerbated that whole situation."
Sometimes, Internet coverage becomes spotty right at a village's borders. Stahl shared an anecdote about one couple who found out they had an Internet problem only after buying a house just a few minutes north of Morton.
"They couldn't work from home. And during COVID, his wife had to work from home. And so she ended up at the coffee shop in Morton every day, buying coffee and sitting there for six hours a day just to do her job," Stahl said.
Maxwell Schneider is a committee member and local realtor. He said Internet access isn't just an issue for people who work from home, however.
"It's the farmer now that's going to upload data to the cloud after he gets done around out in the field. It's the doctor or nurse practitioner that's maybe looking to expand virtual visits to their more rural patients. It's affected small business owners," he said. "We've talked with small business owners in Tremont who are looking to expand, but can't because they don't have access to fiber optic internet."
Schneider said the Internet reliability issue does limit prospective buyers for properties in rural areas.
"They're literally tethered to town because they have to have a high speed Internet connection, even if they just want to watch Netflix, and they don't want to have a limited bandwidth or a limited amount of data to use. It is a real problem," Schneider said. "And I think that it really affects the demand for those properties."
The American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief package passed by Congress last year included funding for expanding broadband access. Combined with the state's Connect Illinois program, Schneider said now is a good time to get in the running for grants.
"That's why we're starting this process now; to make sure that we're not left behind," he said.
Many Internet service providers are reluctant to run expensive fiber optic cable out into sparsely-populated rural areas, where their return on the investment is likely to be low. Stahl said that's why he hopes the survey sparks grassroots momentum, even if that means he must go door-to-door out in the country to gather input in an effort to demonstrate to lawmakers and ISPs alike that there is a groundswell of support for better internet access.
"There are some people who just don't see the value in high speed internet. And if you're in a different spot in your life, (if) you live in town, you don't see this as a problem," Stahl said. "But the people who have four kids who were kicked out of school because of COVID last year; they had a struggle that that no parent has ever dealt with in their entire lifetime."
"We will not be able to move the needle on this issue without those stories, without these testimonies," said Schneider.
The Connect Tazewell survey runs through the end of March. The Tazewell County Broadband Committee plans to compile the survey results and present them at an Internet access summit with local stakeholders, lawmakers, and ISPs in April.