Bridging digital divide: Pritzker unveils $50 million in broadband matching funds

Gov. J.B. Pritzker describes the state’s release of $50 million in grants for broadband projects during a press conference Wednesday at Ridgely Elementary School in Springfield. Joining the governor were Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, to Pritzker’s right, and state and industry officials. (Photo by Lee Milner)

Illinois is releasing $50 million in seed money to grow broadband and enhance telehealth, education and economic development around the state, Gov. J.B. Pritzker announced Wednesday at Ridgley Elementary School, Springfield.

In all-purpose room filled with students, state officials and industry representatives, the governor noted the “rights of communities to have access” to telehealth, education and economic opportunities via high-speed internet. This marks the first matching fund grants from a $420-million broadband initiative approved last year.

Pritzker compared the potential rural impact to what followed rural electrification. “Rural broadband challenges are no different,” he said. “Only through thoughtful partners among government, communities and broadband providers alike will we achieve our ubiquitous goal of broadband access.”

“Broadband access is a critical component of modern agriculture, but far too many Illinois are missing out,” said Illinois Farm Bureau President Richard Guebert Jr. in a prepared statement. “Not only can broadband access improve the economic well-being of farmers, but it can also help revitalize rural Illinois and boost our economy.”

Matt Schmit, state broadband director, told FarmWeek the effort is meant to help farmers and rural areas; however, broadband access isn’t limited to only rural parts of the state. “Huge swaths of Illinois are unserved” by high-speed internet -- “the best tool to fill in the gap,” said Schmit of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO).

“With broadband expansions, farmers can better compete in the global marketplace, small towns can attract businesses and rural communities be more livable and open to opportunities,” said Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council.

DCEO posted application information online and set an April 3 deadline for proposals. Schmitt listed rural cooperatives among entities for potential projects “as long as they demonstrate they can do the work ... and that they have community support.”

The state will use Federal Communications Commission broadband standards of download speeds of 25 megabits (Mpbs) per second and upload speeds of 3 Mpbs as minimum standards for project proposals, according to Schmitt.

While the governor’s announcement stated project applicants must offer at least 50% of nonstate funding, Schmit said his agency understands every applicant won’t be able to provide local match dollars. Project applications may propose a combination of federal and other funding sources, he said, adding, “We’re looking to turn every (state) dollar into at least $2.”

IFB will monitor project proposals to learn which receive funding, said Bill Bodine, who represented IFB on the state Broadband Advisory Council and serves as the organization’s director of business and regulatory affairs.