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New survey could open the door for better internet in Mason County

FILE - Travis Sheetz, a worker with the Mason County (Wash.) Public Utility District, installs fiber optic cable on a utility pole, Aug. 4, 2021, near Belfair, Wash. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is announcing $759 million in grants and loans to enable rural communities to access high-speed internet. It’s part of the broader $65 billion push for high-speed connectivity from last year’s infrastructure law. Under the initiative announced Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022 there are 49 recipients in 24 states. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)
Ted S. Warren/AP
FILE - Travis Sheetz, a worker with the Mason County [Washington.] Public Utility District, installs fiber optic cable on a utility pole, Aug. 4, 2021, near Belfair, Washington. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, file)

A rural central Illinois county wants to speed up its internet, a process that will be fueled by feedback from the people who live there.

The Mason County Board last month opened a county-wide survey to gather information from citizens on their current internet speeds, providers, concerns and needs. The board hopes to use the data to guide decision-making for the county’s broadband infrastructure plans.

There are surveys for both residents and businesses. The results will be shared with the communities, local government officials and Internet Service Providers, and the best strategies for the new infrastructure will be exchanged.

Kathie Brown, director of rural outreach and development for the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council [GPEDC], said equal broadband access for everyone is an area of focus for her office.

“It’s an important part of life today, whether it be medical, work from home, precision agriculture, education,” Brown said. “We really need to hear from businesses and residents alike about their current broadband service and their desire for increased broadband connectivity in different parts of Mason County.”

The plan is for the survey collection to last four months, after which the county will build a comprehensive plan and vision for broadband internet. Brown said the building out of broadband systems could happen a year or more after the survey is complete, following potential grant approvals.

“It’s a long process,” Brown said. “At its core, it’s about mapping out a fundable, sustainable business plan that could support that broadband expansion into these rural areas.”

The county was awarded funding through the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act [CEJA] and Just Transition Fund in the hopes of rebuilding the local economy following the closure of the Havana Power Plant in 2019. According to Brown, the county board decided to use the funds on broadband because of the positive impact it could have on the county’s main employment sectors that include agriculture, health care, and education.

The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program [BEAD] will additionally provide more than $1.3 billion to Illinois to help with the state’s broadband connectivity, and Brown is hoping Mason County will receive a grant based on the survey’s showcasing its need.

“It’s the rural areas that really lack any kind of significant broadband speeds, and it’s certainly not adequate for many of the business functions that we’re trying to perform using broadband,” Brown said.

Precision agriculture is an area Brown thinks will benefit heavily from increased broadband, as the use of data can help increase crop yields and improve efficiency.

Brown said she’s already received around 400 household responses within the first week, with places like schools at the forefront of the promotion due to their need for better internet. Superintendents in the county have told Brown about their hope for broadband in order to assign homework because not every student has the same internet access.

“It’s not fair,” Brown said. “That’s one of our injustices is that we’re not adequately serving everyone equally.”

By the summer, Brown said GPEDC will have engaged in broadband planning efforts in all five of the counties it serves in another step toward securing equal internet access for all.

Mason Klemm is a reporting intern for WCBU. He is studying sports communication at Bradley University and is expected to graduate in May 2024.