Statewide broadband access goal of ‘Connect Illinois’

Chicago News USA

The lack of adequate broadband width to properly power computers for homes, schools and businesses is a problem in some rural areas but also in some bigger cities, according to Matt Schmit, new director of the Illinois Office of Broadband in the state’s commerce department.

Schmit, 39, a native of Red Wing, Minnesota, who has served in his home state’s Senate, took his post with the state of Illinois in early September and is now living in Evanston. In his role, he’ll oversee the $420 million the state is spending on broadband as part of the capital plan passed by the General Assembly last spring and being put into effect by the administration of Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

“You tend to see metro areas with better service, but that’s not always the case,” Schmit said in an interview. “There are pockets of poor service in urban areas all over the country.”

Schmit worked to expand broadband reach in Minnesota while in the legislature. He had won a four-year term in 2012 as a rural Democrat, but lost a bid for re-election in 2016. He said he had worked in the legislature to “bring people together and invest in infrastructure.” He said he’s been “blessed to be able to continue the work,” in part as an independent consultant — helping communities get broadband access. He’s also been an academic researcher and university instructor.

What he’d like to see in six years, Schmit said, is “ubiquitous service to all homes, businesses and community anchor institutions around the state. And I think that’s achievable.”

Schmit, who is being paid $135,000 annually in the job, said anchor institutions are such things as schools, libraries and hospitals — places that serve the public. And he said the amount of investment being made in Illinois caught his eye.

By comparison, he said, Minnesota has made “strong progress,” but with total investment over recent years of $100 million.

The Pritzker administration in Illinois announced its “Connect Illinois” program in August as part of the “Rebuild Illinois” capital plan, which with roads, bridges, buildings and other infrastructure will total $45 billion over six years.

The administration said the broadband work would seek to improve “telehealth,” where healthcare providers can work with patients via the internet; education; and economic development.

The plan also included creation of a Broadband Advisory Council, and Schmit has been working with that group. He said the General Assembly should have a report from the group by January.

The spending plan includes $20 million for the existing Illinois Century Network. The money will repair and expand the network that serves educational institutions, with the focus on the K-12 portion. The other $400 million is to go for a grant program administered by the commerce department.

“We are planning to take a measured approach,” Schmit said, with perhaps $50 million in matching grants being made available in a first round. He said the application process, yet to be announced, will allow “providers, cooperatives, public-private partnerships, communities themselves” and other entities to seek those grants.

“What we want to stress is that you have to have a strong background and track record in broadband deployment, and that we want the applications to be community-based,” he added. He said that when those applications will be evaluated next year, the state will be looking for “last-mile investments” that will allow broadband connections in homes, businesses and community anchor institutions.

Todd Maisch, president and CEO of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said his organization gives lawmakers and the governor “a lot of credit for recognizing that certain parts of the state need additional help.”

But he also cautioned that he doesn’t want the state to compete with businesses in the process.

“We just want to make sure that government doesn’t get too aggressive in competing with the private sector,” Maisch said.

But he agrees on the need for broadband.

“It’s everything from manufacturing to graphic design,” Maisch said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in — if you can’t go ahead and get very fast computing speeds into your business, it’s going to be a real problem and it’s holding back economic development in certain regions of the state.”

Schmit said he thinks getting service to all areas of Illinois is achievable.

“I think if we’re smart with how we invest the Connect Illinois funds, we’re (going to be) able to move the dial in a significant way not only in ensuring that all folks have access to basic broadband throughout the state, but also that we’re positioning individual communities and businesses and homes to compete in the 21st Century with fast connections.”

Contact Bernard Schoenburg: bernard.schoenburg@sj-r.com, 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg.

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