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Tazewell County: Showcase for the Digital Divide

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As chairman of the Tazewell County Board, David Zimmerman is in a position to know about the so-called digital divide, the term used to describe the lack of high-speed internet in rural America.

Tazewell County is a microcosm of the problem that besets much of the country, said Zimmerman. “You have the larger cities in the county that are very well connected with several different options such as Comcast and i3,” he said, referring to Tazewell County towns that are widely-wired such as Pekin, East Peoria and Morton.

“But just two miles outside of town, you have nothing,” said Zimmerman of the lack of broadband options available in much of rural Tazewell County. “It’s frustrating I know for the people who live out there,” he said.

The pandemic has only increased the importance of the internet with telemedicine, remote education and people working from home, said Zimmerman, recently named to a national task force focused on making broadband more available across the country.

“It took over 50 years to bring telephone service to everyone in America, over 60 years for electrification. We can’t wait that long (for the internet),” he said.

Crossing the divide won’t be easy, said Zimmerman, citing an example just two miles east of his hometown in Morton.

“There’s a subdivision called Mayfair of about 30 homes. An I-3 representative said it would cost $175,000 to run fiber to the subdivision. Assuming that half to three-quarters of those homes would subscribe, it would take them 18 to 20 years just to recoup the cost of running the fiber out there,” he said.

One possible solution might be for communities to form special taxing districts like Heritage Lake homeowners did in Mackinaw to finance road improvements, said Zimmerman.

“Maybe one of the upsides of the pandemic is that people are starting to realize they don’t have to live in Chicago or Peoria. They can work remotely. They can have a place in the country. This is an opportunity for some of these rural communities, an opportunity in the midst of a crisis, for smaller communities that have been losing population to revive themselves,” he said.

“These communities offer a lot but they don’t offer the high-speed internet that’s so crucial moving into the future,” said Zimmerman, adding that the recently-signed federal COVID relief package could also help efforts to boost broadband.

“With the American Rescue Act, counties will get a boatload of money. Tazewell County is scheduled to get $25.7 million—half within 60 days with the other half in 12 months from now. That money has to be used in four different areas. One of those is in making investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure,” he said.

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