Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., Feb. 21, 22 or 23
“Rural residents have always struggled for access. In past decades, they fought for roads, for electricity, even mail delivery. Now some feel as though they’re at the dead end of the Information Superhighway. They may have reason to worry.”
I wrote that for a magazine story 13 years ago, and it’s still true.
Then-U.S. Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley in 2000 said, “The greatest change in business has been the explosion in information technologies [and] the gap between technological haves and have-nots – what we call the digital divide – is a divide we must close, and fast.”
It hasn’t happened, according to current research on state and national levels.
The price of access to high-speech Internet service – broadband – prevents some from getting it, and government should help, according to a University of Illinois-Chicago professor who this month spoke to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about it. The FCC held a “summit” on the digital divide and focused on how rural areas – plus low-income families, seniors and other – can’t yet use the Internet fully. That echoes Illinois reports from state government and the private sector.
“Cost is a major challenge … and has not been addressed sufficiently by policy,” said Karen Mossberger of UIC, author of the 2012 book “Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity.”
Big geographic areas in west-central Illinois aren’t served, according to a 2011 report from the Partnership for a Connected Illinois (PCI). Broadband access is spotty in huge swaths of the region roughly bordered by Interstate 80 on the north, I-39 on the east, St. Louis on the south and the Mississippi River on the west. Of Illinois’ 102 counties, Fulton ranks 79; here are others’ ranks: Henderson (91), Henry (15), Knox (43), Livingston (36), McDonough (18), Peoria (57), Stark (70), Tazewell (33), Warren (59) and Woodford (50).
The Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, working with the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at WIU in Macomb, has been working with PCI to update its findings and correlate the data with feelings throughout the state by means of six “Listening Post” public hearings. Led by Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, the effort seeks to start dialogue between broadband stakeholders in Illinois with findings such as this statistic: Less than 60% of residents of western and southern Illinois use high-speed Internet, and 32% of Illinois adults without broadband are more rural, older, and less well off financially.
“For one quarter of non-broadband adopters, cost relief – both lower monthly access prices and low-cost computer offerings – is crucial to luring them to broadband, said PCI’s John B. Horrigan.
Smart phones are an increasingly common way for Illinoisans to go online. However, smart phones are no substitute for broadband access, Mossberger warned. She said people who use smart phones exclusively do fewer activities online and have lower levels of Internet skill, while home broadband customers use the Internet for health care, jobs, education and government services.
Broadband is one of the two most serious infrastructure issues for Illinoisans, behind only concern for roads and bridges, according to the Rural Affairs Council’s annual report to Gov. Quinn. According to Listening Post feedback, 28% cite adequacy of roads and bridges, and 21% cite lack of access to high-speed Internet.
Clearly, improving high-speed Internet service is a priority with the people, who were not only clear but articulate in their opinions.
“We were impressed by the quality of the discussion and the passion that many of the [Listening Post] attendees brought,” said IIRA director Christopher Merritt. “Rural residents demonstrated their commitment to their communities and their belief that rural areas are great places to live, work and do business.”
Will the General Assembly help commercial interests fill the need?
[PICTURED: Illustration from the University of Illinois at Chicago news.]