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Illinois Connected Communities:Leveraging the Power of Local Communities

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 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Robbie McBeath
McBeath

The first round of the Illinois Connected Communities program is beginning to wind down. The program is an education and capacity-building project that pairs critical philanthropic resources with state funding — with a goal of serving 30 under-resourced Illinois communities over three years. Selected communities complete a community-driven, broadband strategic plan that articulates the community’s vision and identifies an action plan for progress toward improved broadband access, adoption, and/or utilization. Selected communities receive a state grant of up to $15,000 and participate in a Benton Institute-run curriculum and coaching program. The program includes a combination of focused, community-specific, regional, and cohort-wide activities throughout a 12-month period.

The 12 communities in the first cohort include four school districts, two community-based organizations, two local governments, two county-level organizations, and two economic development groups. Participants include [View Map]:

Map of Illinois Wireline Broadband Connections
A Map of Illinois Wireline Broadband Availability at 25/3 Mbps
  • Brown County School District 1
  • City of Harvey
  • Housing Authority of Champaign County
  • Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois
  • Mattoon School District 2
  • McKinley Park Development Council (Chicago southwest side neighborhood)
  • Mercer County Better Together
  • Neighborhood Network Alliance (Chicago South Shore neighborhood)
  • Palatine School District 15
  • Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163
  • Region 1 Planning Council (Winnebago County and City of Rockford)
  • Village of Flanagan

Year One 

As each community addressed its own unique digital divides, we learned the importance of bringing together key community stakeholders to participate in that process. School representatives, community organizations, business and local government leaders, residents, and broadband service providers often were excited to collaborate, recognizing the shared interest in getting more people online. Community steering committees reached out to local broadband providers, or nearby providers, ultimately forming relationships that brought new access to previously underserved areas or helped promote awareness and use of internet service provider discount programs. Some even held “broadband provider summits.”

One of the most successful broadband provider summits was led by the Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois, whose steering committee representatives hailed from nine different counties right outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Metro East, the second-largest population center outside of Chicago, has over 700,000 people. Their provider summit engaged over 60 participants — legislators, economic developers, broadband providers, and other community stakeholders — to discuss broadband gaps in Southwestern Illinois. One of the leaders of the steering committee, Dr. Ronda Sauget, said that interacting with their legislators and their mayors throughout the program was very critical. “From these provider summits, we saw legislators coming to the table and saying, ‘What can we do to help our communities to be connected?’ Prior to this [Illinois Connected Communities] initiative, I really didn’t hear a lot from people about broadband,” she said. “In bringing that awareness to the table, now we see mayors including it in their strategic plans and funding to help their communities to be connected, doing the strategic planning, and having broadband [considered] as equal an infrastructure as water, sewer, electricity — it’s something that’s viewed as a highly needed service…Getting broadband into the discussions has changed how people look at the importance of broadband.” 

For many communities, the adoption and use of broadband technologies were the targets of their efforts. For example, the Neighborhood Network Alliance in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood is in the process of creating a digital inclusion alliance, sharing resources with another Chicago-based Illinois Connected Community, McKinley Park. Palatine and its school district look to do the same, leveraging the resources of its local libraries to build a sustainable model of digital inclusion with digital navigators. And as COVID-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, many communities have begun planning in-person broadband summits, planning sessions, and community meetings. 

Every community also worked on surveying their own digital divides, often through broadband use surveys. One community that had a tremendous response was the Village of Flanagan, located about 30 miles north of Bloomington in north central Illinois. For years, most of the over 1,000 residents were either unserved or underserved by broadband. Connect Flanagan, the name of the steering committee that applied for the Illinois Connected Community grant, ended up mailing out its broadband use survey in two rounds. They received over 500 responses back, for a response rate of about 50%. And the need was clear: 95% of residents who responded to the survey said they needed better internet access. 

Roseanna Davidson, a senior citizen who lives in Flanagan, helped with the grant writing for Connect Flanagan. She spoke about her experience. “Everybody in Flanagan had been complaining about the lack of internet and problems for years, and various leaders had checked into it on an informal basis. But nobody, no company, was coming forward to be our savior. Flanagan is very family-oriented and it’s a multi-generational community. So a lot of my peers have grandchildren or great-grandchildren in the public schools, so especially when COVID hit, it was very obvious that everybody needed access to reliable internet…Before, it was more considered a luxury, but now it’s really considered a necessity. And I think people of all ages really agree, based on the responses that we received.” 

Roseanna joined with other Connect Flanagan members to communicate with providers and apply for a grant from the state of Illinois to help spur the building of fiber infrastructure in their community. The plans are underway, and Flanagan is hoping to achieve100Mbps/100Mbps speeds throughout the community. 

The progress Flanagan has made in applying for infrastructure grants highlights one of the goals of the Illinois Connected Communities program: to encourage participating communities to take advantage of other State of Illinois broadband programs and funding opportunities. Key initiatives include:

  • Connect Illinois, a $400 million grant program to help expand broadband infrastructure across the state. 
  • The Broadband Regional Engagement for Adoption + Digital Equity (READY) program, a collaborative effort between the Illinois Office of Broadband and the Illinois Innovation Network. The READY program provides grant funding to galvanize collaboration among key broadband stakeholders across all 10 of Illinois’ economic development regions.  Each regional ‘Broadband READY team’ identifies current digital inequities as well as next steps in creating a digital inclusion ecosystem among community and economic development organizations, higher education, libraries, and other regional stakeholders. 
  • The Connect Illinois Computer Equity Network, which partners with national nonprofit, PCs for People, and contributes to the state’s digital equity initiatives by receiving, refurbishing, and redistributing computers to those in need. 

Like Flanagan, three other llinois Connected Communities have applied for Connect Illinois funds; three have joined other regional partners and universities in the READY program, and almost all hosted computer distribution events for low-income households in their communities through PCs for People. 

The Leadership Council achieved impressive results, joining a group of partners, including the Urban League of Greater St. Louis and the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois, to attract PCs for People to the Metro East region. Additionally, the Leadership Council helped PCs for People locate a quality building in Belleville, Illinois in which to operate the retail and distribution center. Further, the Leadership Council plays a role in urging regional public and private partners to recycle their computers for refurbishing and distribution to those in need in the southern half of Illinois. “One of the big success stories that we had that was brought to our area was PCs for People,” said Dr. Sauget. “Local companies can donate their computers and [PCs for People] refurbishes them and recycles those computers back out to underserved students, the elderly, veterans, women, who then have computers to enter the digital literacy space, and be able to then move on to the workforce and enjoy job opportunities. So that’s a huge success.”

The success of PCs for People reached the largest Illinois population center as well. Amena Karim, a community activist and volunteer on the South Shore steering committee, described the success of bringing PCs for People to their community. “We had a partnership with PCs for People. Because I’m a community activist, I had about 8-10 community-based organizations that [received support through] PCs for People and the Neighborhood Network Alliance. We gave away 50 computers to people who fit into a lot of different categories. For those who were re-entering society, incarcerated, never had a computer, needed a computer for employment opportunities. People who didn’t have access to telehealth connectivity, needed a computer…Partnering with PCs for People allowed us to connect with these community-based organizations and have our neighbors truly enjoy refurbished high-end quality computers. So to me, that was a win, and that was because the Benton Institute had the opportunity to reach out to PCs for People, connect us to them, and then we did the legwork in terms of distributing the computers. So I thought that was a big win.” Amena was also the executive producer of a short video highlighting the work of PCs for People and the Neighborhood Network Alliance. You can watch the video here

Looking Forward: Year Two

A second cohort of eight communities, which will include under-connected urban, suburban, and rural Illinois locations, has been selected. Work will begin later this summer.

We’re encouraging our new communities to attend a Benton Institute 5-part webinar series, organized in collaboration with the State of Illinois Office of Broadband and the University of Illinois Extension. Sessions will get communities up-to-speed on broadband terminology, the basics of community planning, and how steering committees can be most effective.

The Benton Institute is proud to partner with the Illinois Office of Broadband to mobilize stakeholders to work through a comprehensive approach that balances short-term solutions with long-term strategic investment. It is difficult to accomplish statewide ubiquitous broadband access and sustainable digital equity solutions without grounding these ambitious goals in community engagement, capacity building, and planning.