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Illinois ponies up big money to expand rural broadband

Published by Illinois Farmer Today on August 1, 2019

By Nat Williams 

Illinois Director of Agriculture John Sullivan, who is leading the state’s latest push to improve rural internet service, does not have to go far to find an example of the need. It’s right on his farm.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker tasked Sullivan earlier this year with addressing the problem and developing solutions. That includes $420 million approved by the legislature.

“There are unserved and underserved areas of the state,” Sullivan said. “At my home I have internet service, but it’s not adequate. It’s not consistent. It’s impossible to do any kind of computer work at home. If I have to do a webinar or something, I can’t do that from my home.”

While there is room for improvement in every region of the state, rural areas are especially in need of better service. That is one reason the governor pointed to Sullivan for the job.

“Ag really doesn’t have a role, per se, in broadband. But it is a rural issue, and it’s an issue that certainly affects farmers,” Sullivan said.

At least he has some internet service. A good percentage of farms do not.

Figures compiled by the USDA from the 2017 agriculture census indicate that 77% of Illinois farms have internet service. That statistic surprised Sullivan. But it’s not just a problem in Illinois. Nationwide, only 75% of farmers reported that they had service.

“I was surprised to see those numbers,” said Mark Schleusener, Illinois state statistician with the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

He speculates that one factor may be the aging of farmers. The ag census lists the average age of farmers and ranchers at 57.5.

“And for a fair number of people, (internet service) was not part of their farm operation, and they don’t need it,” Schleusener said. “Lots and lots of farmers have mobile phones that will do just about everything. Still, connectivity in the rural areas is a big issue.”

The $420 million approved by the General Assembly will cover a six-year period. Though it comes with no spending parameters, Sullivan believes the money will not be distributed haphazardly.

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