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Illinois Looks To Map Who Has Internet Access And Who Doesn’t

Mary Hansen
NPR Illinois

Illinois plans on spending $400 million over the next several years to improve internet access to farms and small towns.

But first, the state needs to know who has a reliable internet connection and who doesn’t.

The federal government tracks where high-speed internet is available. But the mapping has been criticized for overstating access, particularly in rural areas. Around 30 percent of residents living in rural Illinois lack internet access at speeds of 25 mbps and above, according to a report from the Federal Communications Commission.

Matt Schmit, director of the new Illinois Office of Broadband, said the office’s first project is developing the state’s own map, which it is currently looking for a third-party vendor to do.

“We can chart where we are today, where we want to go, and the progress that we’re making on an annual basis,” Schmit said.

He said the mapping program will include information from internet service providers and customers.

“We want to have a continuing conversation with broadband stakeholders… who may have different experiences when it comes to broadband service in one part of the state, and a map might be telling a different story,” he said. “And we're going to try to reconcile that difference, just so we're able to make the best investments we can in the areas that needed the most.”

Right now, telecommunication companies report to the Federal Communications Commission by census tract where they offer internet and at what speeds. The problem, according to broadband advocates, is that if internet access is available to even one house in the census tract, that area is considered served.

Illinois’ congressional delegation asked the Federal Communications Commission for specific changes to its process last summer.

“What should be of great concern to government, the telecommunications industry, and American consumers is the significant lack of detail, accuracy, and granularity of these broadband maps,” the letter reads .

They said the current process can keep small internet companies or cooperatives from qualifying for needed money to build infrastructure and serve more rural customers.

Schmit previously was a lawmaker in Minnesota and helped start a broadband program there.

The program developed its own statewide map, said Angie Dickison, manager of the Minnesota Broadband Office. She said the state looked at broadband access by service area, instead of census block.

“That gives us a little bit better look at where the coverage actually exists,” Dickison said.

Under Minnesota law, the state aims for everyone to have 25 mbps download speeds by 2022. Currently, around 93% of the population has that, up from 70% in 2011.

Illinois’ law does not have a specific speed or access goal set, but Schmit said his office will develop the goals with its Broadband Advisory Council.

Illinois lawmakers earmarked money for the projects in its multibillion dollar infrastructure plan, funded by a combination of tax increases and an expansion of gambling.

Schmit said the broadband office plans in early 2020 to give out the first round of grant funding to build internet infrastructure.

Copyright 2020 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

Mary is a reporter at NPR Illinois and graduated from the Public Affairs Reporting program atUISand received her BA in International Studies from American University. Previously Mary worked as a planning consultant and reported for the State Journal-Register where she covered city government.