Survey report shows Peoria County’s gaps in broadband access, infrastructure
Preliminary findings from a feasibility study on broadband access in Peoria County confirm a substantial need in rural and economically depressed areas.
County officials and the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council held two informational update sessions on the survey conducted by Virginia-based consulting firm Design Nine with community members last week.
The goal of the study is to identify the service needs and develop a plan for seeking government funding to address those needs.
Jack Maytum, a senior business analyst with Design Nine, said the study shows that gaps in high-speed internet access are most prevalent in the rural areas – but not exclusively.
“If you're in downtown Peoria, you probably have reasonably good broadband access; you may even have more than one internet service provider (ISP),” Maytum said. “The problem with the urban areas in certain locations is the economic equity, the access. The paying the monthly fee for the service is out of the reach of many families.
“So we're hoping that we can identify those areas, so that we can make a case for better economic support for families who live in those economically deprived regions, either through the providers or through the federal, state, or local government.”
Maytum shared the draft report on the survey in presentations during the two public information sessions held at Illinois Central College's Peoria campus. He said they consulted a half-dozen internet service providers in Peoria County to help produce their findings.
“They've actually provided us with maps of their coverage and their future plans, so that's a very significant start to improving the broadband,” Maytum said. “They've been very cooperative and we're hoping to build on that, because we understand that when we're improving broadband in Peoria or anywhere else, it largely depends on the existing internet service providers to expand their service to reach more people.”
Maytum notes that 83% of respondents to the countywide survey believe county government should be involved with expanding broadband access and infrastructure. Peoria County administrator Scott Sorrell found that noteworthy.
“It shows that that we're on the right path, and that it's something that we should be engaged in and invested in,” Sorrell said. “I think it's the function for the county board is what that engagement and what that investment looks like going forward.”
Sorrell said that doesn’t necessarily mean Peoria County will get into the ISP business.
“There are definite cost barriers for the internet service providers to extend the infrastructure to everyone, or to as many people as possible when you look at it from a return on investment perspective – and that was similar to what rural electrification was,” he said. “What happened there is the government helped build out the rural electric network so that the most rural customers were able to get electricity."
“The same is true with broadband access, and at this point in time it's the county's thoughts and desires that we act as that local government partner for our internet service providers to try and tap into as much of those state and federal dollars being dedicated for broadband infrastructure as we can, so that we can bring high speed internet access to all parts of Peoria County.”
Kathie Brown, the Director of Rural Outreach and Development for the Greater Peoria EDC, said the need to boost connectivity continues to grow as the use of advanced technology expands across multiple industries.
“Health care is a big one, in terms of how technology is helping to monitor our health and well-being, especially for those with chronic illnesses. It's a critical piece of healthcare, and it's a great way for us to control healthcare costs,” Brown said.
“In agriculture, much of the research that's been done at the state and federal level points to the losses economically that we're experiencing in agriculture (are) because we're not fully able to utilize the technology for decision making and planning, because of lack of broadband access. So I think almost in every aspect of our lives, whether it be healthcare, business, recreation, certainly education – all those play into part, in terms of the importance of having adequate broadband service.”
Brown pointed out that in rural areas, the distance between households and residences make it difficult and costly for ISPs to expand the infrastructure. She said Peoria County poses some unique challenges in that regard as well.
“We also are faced with beautiful topography in Peoria County, and those gently rolling hills and the trees present some difficulties in fixed wireless service for the areas,” she said. “So those are some critical things that we have to look at in our planning and consideration. I think we're ready to have that next conversation with providers around the priority areas.”
Maytum said the federal government is taking a “big step” with next year's implementation of the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program, or BEAD.
“It's a funding program, $42.5 billion, which is designed not only to increase the reach of the broadband infrastructure to rural areas which now have insufficient broadband, but also to provide a monthly stipend for those families who don't have the economic wherewithal to be able to pay the fee,” Maytum said. “So it's a fairly broad program encompassing both additional deployment of broadband infrastructure and economic support for those families who are living in poverty.”
Brown said Illinois is expected to receive $1.4 billion of the BEAD funding, so now is the most opportune time to explore critical investments in expanding broadband – and that’s why they commissioned the survey.
“The reason for making this investment is: the time is now," Brown said. "Perhaps no other time in the last century, has there been such an opportunity to make this critical investment in broadband, so we want to take advantage of that. We want to be as prepared as we can and we want to work cohesively around filling those gaps for our region.”
Maytum said the final report on the broadband feasibility study will be released in the next couple months.
“When we get the final report, we’ll digest it and then we'll be looking to them (Design Nine) – and others who are subject matter experts more than us at Peoria County government – to look at the recommendations they propose and then see what direction the county board wants to go,” Sorrell said. “Does the county board want to continue down the path of partnering with our internet service providers, or do we want to pivot and get into the “pipes and wires” business? Today, I don't think the county board is going to want to go in that direction, but we’ll wait and see.”