Quinn pushing for access for everyone



Many broadband deployment advocates, such as Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, think it’s up to the state of Illinois to ensure every Illinois resident has access to affordable high-speed Internet.



Quinn heads the Broadband Deployment Council, which gives grants to extend broadband networks and seeks to find ways to extend high-speed service to unserved areas of the state.



“Our basic theme is everybody in, nobody out,” Quinn said recently. “I really feel we need to have that.”



The state’s most significant foray into extending rural broadband networks is the Vince Demuzio Rural Broadband Initiative, a $1 million pilot project designed to extend high-speed Internet to underserved areas of Macoupin and Montgomery counties.



Carolyn Brown Hodge, director of rural affairs for Quinn, said initial surveys have shown  broadband access is more widespread in the two counties than anticipated. As a result, the initiative – named after the late state senator from Carlinville – will instead be redirected to ramp up Internet speeds for businesses.



Nora Feuquay, economic development coordinator for Macoupin County, said the initiative will help both to keep tech jobs in the area and to lure in new businesses.



“When (businesses) are looking at our county, we have a lot to offer as far as cheaper labor and better taxes and things like that,” she said. “However, if we don’t have the broadband ability that they need, that can sway them to stay in a more urban area.”



Hodge said Quinn’s office is also considering a plan to require the Illinois Department of Transportation to install high-speed fiber optic cables underneath any stretch of new road IDOT builds.



Quinn is trying to expand on the Broadband Deployment Council by creating a new non-profit organization called ConnectIL. ConnectIL would control broadband grant money, be responsible for determining which areas of the state don’t have broadband service, and try to extend service to all Illinois residents.



One state that has invested millions in public money to construct rural broadband networks — with promising results — is Virginia.



In recent years, rural areas of southern and southwestern Virginia have lost jobs as coal, tobacco, furniture and textile industries have either declined or moved overseas.



The state’s response has been to make those areas meccas for high-tech jobs by sinking millions of dollars into providing high-speed fiber optic cable to these areas, said Todd Christenson, deputy director of community development for the Virginia Department of Housing and Economic Opportunity.



The state has already extended high-speed Internet to several rural counties, Christenson said. Two dozen more counties are drawing up broadband deployment plans of their own.



The investment has immediately started to pay off, Christenson said.



About a year and a half ago, the state ran fiber optic Internet service to Lebanon, a town of about 3,000 in what Christenson called one of the most economically distressed areas of the state. Since then, two research and technology companies, CGI and Northrup Grumman, decided to open offices there, creating about 700 jobs.



“These are software programmers and software engineers — not call-center jobs,” Christenson said.  “These are $50,000-a-year jobs.”



“But without this community having this fiber (optic cable),” he said, “they wouldn’t have any chance in the world of having Northrup Grumman coming through.”



But simply using state money to blanket rural areas with fiber optic cable networks isn’t a solution by itself, said Ed Feser of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,



“Some states have … just dropped fiber everywhere – every time there’s a road built, every time they’re running fiber,” Feser said.



It’s important to let rural areas find local solutions, he said. Some communities have done so by creating municipal internet providers, he said. Even the threat of a municipal broadband service has been enough for telecom companies to extend service to some communities.



Public advocates and private broadband companies don’t have to be at odds.



In the southernmost 20 counties in Illinois, business and political figures have banded together with Internet providers to create ConnectSI, a non-profit internet cooperative.



Only about 12 percent of southern Illinoisans currently have broadband service. ConnectSI’s goal is to balloon that usage rate to 54 percent by 2012, Duncan said.



To achieve this, Southern Illinois residents who want broadband access can send requests to ConnectSI, Duncan said. ConnectSI determines whether the requesters already have broadband access. If not, ConnectSI passes those requests on to local broadband companies, which figure out whether they can extend service to those areas, he said.



The result is a win-win situation, Duncan said. Many homes and businesses now have broadband access for the first time, and Internet providers have more paying customers.



“More people using more bandwidth drives more return on network provider investment,” he said. “And that will cause more infrastructure expansion.”






Jeremy Pelzer can be reached at (217) 782-3095 or at jeremy.pelzer@sj-r.com.