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Peoria area leaders consider ways to improve broadband access, digital equity

Peoria-area community and business leaders participate in a panel discussion on expanding broadband access last week at the Embassy Suites in East Peoria.
Joe Deacon
Peoria-area community and business leaders participated in a panel discussion on expanding broadband access last week at the Embassy Suites in East Peoria.

As daily life becomes more and more reliant on internet connectivity, the need to bring broadband access to unserved and under-served areas continues to grow.

Illinois is set to receive $1 billion in 2024 through the federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD) to help fund development of rural broadband infrastructure. It’s part of a $42.45 billion package distributed through the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Additional funding programs such as the federal Affordable Connectivity Program aim to bring high-speed internet access to low-income areas.

Last week, a group of Peoria-area business and community leaders held a panel discussion on how the government funding can best be used to foster digital equity and expand broadband access across Peoria and Tazewell counties.

With telehealth, manufacturing and retail among the business sectors driving the need for broadband expansion, Jacobie Proctor said overcoming the digital equity gap needs to be the first step to bringing connectivity to everyone.

“I just don't want the point to be missed that the access is the most important part,” said Proctor, CEO of the George Washington Carver Community Center in Peoria. “It is great to see it from the healthcare perspective; it is great to see it from the manufacturers and the retail perspective. But ultimately, the community is what drives all of those things: the employments, the patients.

“It is just truly a great thing to have a platform to speak up on it, but without everybody missing the point that the access is why we're here," she said. "Not being able to talk to your doctors or retail shop or apply for the jobs in the manufacturing companies is the reason we're here. So leveling the playing field for low-income and at-risk communities and rural areas is going to be pivotal in changing how we go forward as a society so that everybody feels the equity.”

Proctor noted there's more to digital equity than just providing low income households with free internet access.

“I think a lot of times when we're talking about it, people just feel like, ‘Oh, if we give it to them …,” she said. “There needs to be training. There has to be the discussion of how they get it, there has to be discussion of what it looks like for individuals.

“Half of the battle is just providing it, the other half is giving people the skills to know how to use it. So leveling the playing field on that gives everybody the right to have the education, the right to know more about themselves and know more about the community they serve, to know more about jobs that are available, the healthcare options. It’s going to be a situation where when it happens, it’s surely going to be a game-changer.”

The discussion, held at the Embassy Suites in East Peoria, came on the heels of Peoria County officials receiving a preliminary report on a broadband access feasibility study. The panelists stressed broadband’s importance in driving economic growth and workforce development, as well as providing children and adults with important digital skills.

State Rep. Ryan Spain, R-Peoria, advocates for improving broadband infrastructure, both as an elected official and as Vice President of Economic Development for OSF Healthcare. Spain said high speed connectivity has become essential to the medical industry.

“We see more and more healthcare conducted electronically through telehealth,” Spain said. “Peoria’s fortunate; health care is our dominant industry, and where I work at OSF, we're the leader in telehealth. We have a telehealth mission control located in downtown Peoria, and all of those activities require high-speed internet to be connected all throughout the state of Illinois.”

Chris Smith, Comcast’s regional senior vice president who moderated the panel, said internet service providers need to take advantage of the current funding opportunities to provide access to as many people as possible.

“In the state of Illinois, you have roughly 150,000 or more homes that don't have access to broadband speeds above 25 megabits,” Smith said. “In today's digital world, what we learned from the pandemic, is that digital adoption, digital skills, and access to doing everything online is more important than ever.

“If communities and our constituents don't have access to that, they can't be successful, their children can't be successful in school, and we have a labor market that can't be successful in today's world. So we want to do everything we can to partner with the state and partner with communities to make sure we are helping provide access to those communities.”

Smith said Comcast hopes to be included in a third round of grants from Illinois Office of Broadband totaling $350 million for expanding rural broadband infrastructure.

“We have put in our request with the state and are asking to be a part of that program; that's the first step,” Smith said. “The second step is: there are federal dollars right behind it, so if those dollars run out at the state level, there are federal dollars ready to give out. At this point, it’s state partnership with private companies in paving the way for that broadband adoption access.”

Other participants in the discussion included Gordy Hulten of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association and Alec Laird, vice president for government relations with the Illinois Retail Merchants Association. Laird said broadband access has become the “lifeblood” of the retail industry.

“Retail is 1 in 5 jobs in Illinois, and it generally is the foundation for small, rural communities,” Laird said. “Without retail, you see a further decline of those rural communities — and without broadband expansion, you see the decline of the retail. So that's how important it is; broadband supports the expansion of retail in these rural areas and therefore the robustness of these rural areas.”

Laird said future retail growth is increasingly reliant on high-speed connectivity as consumers seek more convenient ways to purchase goods.

“When you think of third-party marketplaces like Amazon, a lot of people think that you're buying (directly) from Amazon. You're not,” Laird said. “Eighty percent of the sellers on Amazon are coming from small businesses and individuals from all over the state. They’re able to sell their wares to the world from rural areas and from homes and from urban areas. Without broadband expansion, none of that is possible.”

Spain said he will continue to advocate for expanded access to broadband.

“The next steps are several rounds of funding that are becoming available and will be deployed throughout the state of Illinois, trying to resolve both unserved communities that truly do not have broadband access — unserved locations — and those that are underserved,” Spain said. “In other words, their speed is so low that they truly can't take advantage of the opportunities for telehealth or for remote working. We need to make investments on both of those, and Illinois is in a tremendous position of advantage to do more of that than any other state.”

Proctor said while low-income residents have been overlooked in the past, it's promising to see this kind of commitment to making investments aimed at improving access for unserved and underserved communities.

“The pandemic came through and changed a lot of people's viewpoints, and now people are taking a stance for themselves. That's why we're having kind of the job market in flux and stuff,” she said. “But we are really, really happy to see that it starts from within and we're hoping that if we can spark a flame, we can light a fire.”

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Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.