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How Peoria County plans to use COVID-19 relief dollars to address broadband reliability

Peoria County is using some of its COVID-19 relief dollars to size up the current state of broadband infrastructure in the county, and devise ways to improve upon the weak spots.

A Greater Peoria Economic Development Council survey is assessing the Internet service and needs of residents across the county.

Peoria County Administrator Scott Sorrel said there's a big push by the federal government to improve residential broadband reliability and access.

"What we saw during COVID are adults driving somewhere where they had good Wi Fi access, or driving their children to school or library parking lots, so that the child could attend school virtually, when, especially in rural areas there is either low speed internet access, or in some cases, no internet access," he said.

The county is setting aside between $2.5-3 million in American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, funds towards broadband. So far, about $100,000 is spent.

"What the County Board has said they want to do on this issue is look at it from an infrastructure standpoint, and then also, at the same time, not be in the pipes and wire business," he said.

Instead, Sorrel said the county wants to leverage some of those dollars to try to obtain additional money from competitive federal grants.

"The most likely way we're going to be able to capture those dollars is by partnering with an existing, or a number of existing, internet service providers and allow them through a concept similar to rural electrification to tap into some federal money, with the county being the conduit to access those dollars and build out their network," he said.

The county administrator said the cost recovery model for laying fiber optic cable into the ground or otherwise building out a network works in an urbanized area like Peoria or Peoria Heights, but it's much harder in a sparsely populated area like Hallock or Jubilee townships.

"There aren't enough customers per mile for them to recapture what it costs to put the fiber in the ground. And so the only way that they're going to put the fiber in the ground is to have a good business case. And the business case is made possible by accessing the federal dollars," he said.

Sorrel said school districts and libraries throughout the county generally have access to quality high speed internet, but telehealth access is still an unanswered question.

"The survey is going to help us and help the OSF HealthCares of the world and the Carle Healthcares of the world make decisions and help us make decisions on where we can improve high speed internet access for both telehealth and what is called the last mile," Sorrel said. "Which is getting from your house or my house to an existing high speed internet network."

The survey ends June 26.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.