Governor JB Pritzker and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Office of Broadband announced today the six communities selected to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Accelerate Illinois Broadband Infrastructure Planning Program. Hosted in collaboration with Heartland Forward and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, the six communities are the City of Springfield, Jackson County, Knox County, Mercer County, Whiteside County, and the Village of Elsah. The 14-week intensive training program will help leaders from participating communities develop broadband plans responsive to their unique local needs and position them to effectively leverage newly available state and federal broadband infrastructure funding. This week, participants are launching community surveys to gather input and data from local residents and stakeholders to help shape their plans.
“Broadband infrastructure is only as useful as it is accessible to the people who need it – so my administration is partnering with local jurisdictions to develop broadband plans responsive to their unique local needs,” said Governor JB Pritzker. “Thanks to our Connect Illinois initiative and federal funding on the way from President Biden’s infrastructure plan, there’s never been more potential to reach our goal of closing the digital divide here in Illinois. I’m grateful to Heartland Forward, the Benton Institute and all our partners on the Accelerate Illinois program working to ensure communities across our state are prepared to utilize this funding effectively.”“All residents should have the same opportunity to tap into the critical resources that access to high-speed internet service providers,” said Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton. “As we continue our efforts to expand digital equity, initiatives like Accelerate Illinois are crucial. I look forward to seeing the progress these communities make through this program.”
With the recent passage of the $1 trillion federal infrastructure plan, Illinois communities stand poised to receive historic funding for the expansion of broadband infrastructure. This is in addition to Governor Pritzker’s bipartisan Rebuild Illinois capital plan which dedicated $420 million to broadband expansion as well as funds made available through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Accelerate Illinois aims to level the playing field and allow cities and counties of all sizes and staffing levels to apply for these funds and plan to most effectively implement them in their communities.
“The Accelerate Illinois program is crucial to ensuring communities have a plan and are equipped with the tools they need to effectively utilize historic funding for broadband infrastructure expansion and improvement,” said Sylvia I. Garcia, Acting Director of DCEO. “Under Gov. Pritzker’s leadership, our state is working to close the digital divide and get all Illinoisans connected to high-speed internet access, this program meets communities where they are and builds capacity that is critical to helping close the gap.”The Accelerate Illinois program is offered through a collaborative effort between the Illinois Office of Broadband, the Illinois-based Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, and the University of Illinois Extension as well as funding by Heartland Forward. The training is designed to guide communities through the process of establishing and implementing a full-scale broadband connectivity vision. With more than 30 hours of no-cost expert counsel provided by the Benton Institute, the program provides structured education and engagement for communities to identify broadband goals, gather information and analyze opportunities, understand available funding options, and target capital dollars to support implementation. “Through Heartland Forward’s Connecting the Heartland initiative, we are working to ensure all Illinoisans have access to the high-speed internet service necessary to live, work and learn at home. Communities across the state are poised to receive historic federal funding to make that goal a reality. But many – especially rural and under-resourced communities – lack the expertise and capacity to seize this opportunity,” said Angie Cooper, Chief Program Officer of Heartland Forward. “That’s why the Accelerate Illinois program is so important, and we are thrilled to be able to support the communities that were selected to participate.”
A core component of the program is the community survey to gather information from local residents, businesses, and community stakeholders about their current use of broadband and satisfaction with existing services. Accelerate program participants will gather input through both online and paper surveys. The online survey process will include a link to an internet speed test to show current broadband speeds and provide visual evidence of whether existing providers need to upgrade services or new providers should come in to meet the state’s broadband goals.“We are grateful to our program collaborators who have come together to build the Accelerate Illinois program, and we look forward to seeing the progress our communities make in the coming weeks,” said Matt Schmit, Director of the Illinois Office of Broadband and Chair of the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council. “With this historic influx of state and federal funding for broadband infrastructure, we can make real progress toward closing the digital divide.”
The Accelerate Illinois Notice of Collaboration originally opened in December as a pilot program to serve up to 12 communities as part of this initiative. Six of the twelve communities have started in this cohort. “Benton Institute is proud to partner with the Illinois Office of Broadband and Heartland Forward to provide counsel to our six selected communities. This planning and engagement process, modeled after a successful Blandin Foundation program in Minnesota, will contribute to efforts to close the digital divide,” said Adrianne B. Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.
“Our overriding goal is to create a comprehensive plan to expand access to broadband to close the digital divide in Springfield,” said Julia Frevert, Communications Director for the City of Springfield. “Through our previous research and data gathering, coupled with City assets, we believe our participation in the Accelerate Illinois program will help us formulate this plan and implementation strategy. Connection to high-speed internet is critical to the equitable economic good for our neighborhoods and families, and we look forward to furthering conversations with our residents and stakeholders to hear how we can best make that a reality.”
“It’s hard to take any big steps forward without a plan – and goodness knows there is work to be done on expanding high quality broadband access to underserved communities in Central Illinois,” said Sen. Doris Turner (D-Springfield). “That’s why I’m looking forward to seeing the plan that comes forward from the City of Springfield to bring every family the connections needed to live in the 21st Century. This is truly what it means to be visionary, and I am grateful to Governor Pritzker for the Connect Illinois program that is making this happen.”
“Access to affordable high-speed internet is essential to meet the educational, economic, cultural and health needs of Knox County residents, particularly in underserved rural areas of the county,” said David Amor, Vice Chair of the Knox County Board, and convener of Knox County’s Illinois Accelerate Steering Team. “The Accelerate Illinois program is providing valuable tools to help us develop a strong, data-driven plan capable of securing future funding to expand broadband infrastructure throughout the county.”
“Mercer County was proud to receive one of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity’s Illinois Connected Communities grants in 2020 where amazing work was done by Mercer County Better Together to situation us for our next phase of our connectivity efforts – to set appropriate visions for how we will utilize this next round of funding,” said Kasi Henshaw, Community Development Consultant to the Mercer County Board. We look forward to surveying local residents and stakeholders in this next step of the Accelerate Illinois program and continuing to gather critical information about local marketplace and technology options, develop public-private partnerships, and implement projects.”
“Whiteside County needs a comprehensive plan to bring reliable, high-speed internet to our students and families across our community,” said Joel Horn, County Administrator of Whiteside County. “We’re grateful to be part of the Accelerate Illinois program, which will give us an opportunity to help our institutions, agencies and organizations develop a plan to get our residents connected.”
“Elsah has embraced the phrase, ‘The village that time forgot,’ in reference to its quaintness and history. However, the geography of our sweet valley has unfortunately made receiving high speed internet services impossible for some of our residents and frustrating for others,” said Susan Young, chairperson for Concerned Citizens About Broadband for Elsah. “We, as citizens of Elsah, have decided to push forward so that every resident can have access to quality broadband. This will help boost our economy and attract more people to live here. Expanding broadband infrastructure is essential. We anticipate that our participation in the Accelerate Illinois program will be integral to our efforts to bring Elsah into this century’s technology.”
In addition to the first cohort of six communities, there will be a second cohort of Accelerate Illinois communities that will be announced later this spring. For more information about the Illinois Office of Broadband, visit the DCEO website.