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Peoria and Woodford Counties looking to strengthen broadband through Accelerate Illinois

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Peoria and Woodford Counties are about to see progressive steps towards broadband plans that fit to their community’s needs.

The Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program gives communities the chance to develop broadband plans that will increase internet access and allow them to receive funds from the state and federal governments. The 14-week program is a partnership between the Illinois Office of Broadband, Benton Institute, Heartland Forward and University of Illinois Extension.

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Heartland Forward is one of the members of the partnership supporting the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Planning program. Other members include the Illinois Office of Broadband, Benton Institute and University of Illinois Extension.

Peoria and Woodford counties joined the second cohort of communities that just began the intensive training.

Heartland Forward’s chief communications and development officer Blake Woolsey said the program is about more than increasing access to broadband dollars.

“We realized we needed to sort of go into the second phase and figuring out ‘how can we possibly help communities understand how to use these infrastructure dollars to make sure that we’re utilizing to the best possible way so that it’s more in a strategic manner. So, this Accelerate Illinois is really about thinking about ‘how can we use the tools that we’ve been given to make the smartest decisions possible to reach the most people with high-speed internet,” Woolsey said.

The $1 trillion dollar bipartisan federal infrastructure package dedicated $65 billion dollars to strengthening broadband. Of that $65 billion, Illinois -- like every other state -- will get at least $100 million to use towards improving broadband infrastructure. That’s according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“So, if you were working from home during the pandemic and you had children that were trying to do schoolwork, the story that we heard repeatedly from households is that you have to take turns. Not everybody could do their work at the same time. So, you really had to budget access to the internet based on whatever you were depending upon.”
Kathie Brown, director of rural outreach and development for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council

Woolsey said in addition to this $100 million, other state funds and available American Rescue Plan money will be put towards the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning program.

“So, that’s why it’s kind of necessary for these communities to be very proactive and strategic in thinking ‘what is it that we need in order to put the best plan together for our community to make sure that we’re going to use them in a way that we need to use them,’’ Woolsey said.

Kathie Brown is the director of rural outreach and development for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. Brown helped submit the grant application for the program on behalf of Woodford and Peoria counties because of the broadband issues that gained attention when COVID first hit.

“So, if you were working from home during the pandemic and you had children that were trying to do schoolwork, the story that we heard repeatedly from households is that you have to take turns. Not everybody could do their work at the same time. So, you really had to budget access to the internet based on whatever you were depending upon,” Brown said.

Two years later, these issues still exist.

“We have underserved areas and really unserved areas that classify by federal FCC standards throughout our region, and it’s largely the rural areas of the counties. They lack sufficient broadband speed to really do the kind of things that we expect on a day-to-day basis,” Brown said.

Brown said it is not uncommon for a household to have more than half a dozen smart devices that are all pulling from that internet, and those things are not going to go away either.

With that, the motive behind the program is understanding what limits rural areas are facing and beginning to build a case that would help Illinois communities secure the federal funds once they become available.

CEO of Greater Peoria Economic Development Council Chris Setti said participating in the program is not only about having internet access for school, work or entertainment purposes.

“It’s increasingly for telemedicine and the ability to connect to healthcare providers, especially if you’re more remote and transportation to a larger city like Peoria and you’re out in rural Woodford County or even rural Peoria County and it’s not as easy to get in,” Setti said.

Setti said the future of rural communities and their economic development depends on proper broadband and response plans to internet reliability. Without this, people will move away.

“It’s not just about being able to stream Netflix from your living room. It’s about how you might operate your business as a family farm, or as a small processor as an accountant in the community. Those are all those things that if we don’t have a proper service, reliable high-speed service with good coverage, those communities could be left behind,” Setti said.

In March 2021, Setti said the Peoria region adopted the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, and the strategy highlighted the need for broadband affordability and access for areas like rural Peoria County.

“It’s not just about being able to stream Netflix from your living room. It’s about how you might operate your business as a family farm, or as a small processor as an accountant in the community. Those are all those things that if we don’t have a proper service, reliable high-speed service with good coverage, those communities could be left behind.”
Chris Setti, CEO of Greater Peoria Economic Development Council

“They will struggle if they aren’t able to provide what is now considered a basic amenity for people. So, whether that’s being able to stream entertainment options or gaming or being able to work occasionally from home, people are going to choose not to live in those more rural communities,” Setti said.

Having broadband-based plans not only makes communities more marketable, but Woolsey said it improves the quality of life of the residents.

“If people need to go and be able and use telemedicine because they may not have the opportunity to leave their home in order to go to an appointment, there’s some critical things in that nature that if they don’t have this, then unfortunately we’re not giving them the best quality of life,” Woolsey said.

The first cohort consisting of six counties recently finished the 14-week program. Tazewell was one of these counties.

Brown said she predicts Peoria and Woodford counties will see the same success rates as Tazewell.

Brown said, “We will develop new strategies and alternatives that we can put into play in Woodford and Peoria County. In Tazewell, that was my key takeaway, is that as we conversed with one another and as we conversed with internet service providers and talked with village boards and councils, we began to discover a new level of readiness.”

Ultimately, Brown said she is excited for what is to come for Peoria and Woodford following the completion of the intensive program in a few months.

“We’re seeing much more use of telemedicine visits, and with the new cancer center in the Peoria region, that can be a really effective way to monitor that cancer patient remotely. So, we’re just only going to see new and increased reasons for strengthening broadband service in the region,” Brown said.

The second cohort will finish the program in August.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WCBU. She joined the station in 2021.