In June 2020, SB 2135 directed the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council (BAC) to study various questions related to broadband access and affordability, including cost estimates for:
- Universal broadband access where existing broadband infrastructure is insufficient;
- Universal free or affordable broadband access for all residents; and
- Free or affordable broadband access for those in poverty.
To provide thorough analysis, the BAC worked with respected researchers to respond to the questions in SB 2135. The resulting study is available here.
Please note a few points about the study:
- Pioneering State Inquiry. The Illinois General Assembly should consider the study as the beginning of a timely and comprehensive conversation about broadband access, adoption, and affordability. While some costs for requested scenarios in SB 2135 might be considered aspirational or even prohibitive, others are well within the realm of doable – in terms of programmatic capacity, scope, and cost. For instance, consider the annual cost of providing affordable broadband to Illinois households in poverty that lack broadband service.
- Cost Estimates as Ranges. Various assumptions underly the findings – from the number of Illinois households lacking broadband access to provider pricing for shorter-term access to costs of longer-term broadband deployment. For this reason, cost estimates are presented as ranges, and the findings herein should be considered as guideposts directing future investment.
- Fixes and Solutions. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the significant stakes of the digital divide, with far too many Illinoisans lacking critical broadband access for remote learning, telehealth, or work from home opportunities. Understandably, the federal policy response focused on shorter-term broadband fixes that provided relatively immediate relief versus longer-term broadband solutions designed for sustainable access. The study discerns such shorter-term fixes from longer-term solutions, while recognizing the value and complementary nature of both approaches.
- Access and Service. SB 2135 references both terms, as does the resulting study – which uses "access" to mean that broadband is available to households in a given area whereas "service" means that the households subscribe to broadband
The Illinois Broadband Strategic Plan speaks to a comprehensive approach to eliminate the digital divide, including through ubiquitous broadband connectivity, access to at-home computers, and robust digital literacy programming. Study findings suggest that Illinois is on the right path, but much work remains:
- Sizable "Homework Gap." According to the 2019 American Community Survey, over 285,000 Illinois households with school-aged children lack at-home wireline broadband service. This presents an urgent priority given the pandemic and reliance upon full-time remote learning.
- Lack of Home Computers. The same ACS data indicates that over 1.1 million Illinois households do not have at-home access to a desktop or laptop computer.
- Connect Illinois Investment. The study confirms that the $400 million devoted to Connect Illinois grants is within the estimated range of what is needed to ensure universal broadband access throughout the state.
In addition to certain cost estimates, SB 2135 sought insight regarding available broadband revenue, a potential implementation schedule, and implications of related initiatives referenced in the Connect Illinois Broadband Strategic Plan.
- Broadband Revenue. To meet our broadband goals, Illinois will need to leverage strong investment from the private and public sectors, including from federal, state, and local levels of government. Illinois would be well served to promote more active local participation in funding broadband deployment and programming, as well as greater funding flexibility, technology scalability, and network performance from federal funding sources – especially in the form of federal block grant funding for expanded broadband infrastructure investment.
- Implementation Schedule. Given the various scenarios and cost estimates included in the study, it is difficult to produce a comprehensive, reliable implementation schedule. However, deploying free or affordable broadband to the approximate 83,000 Illinois households in poverty without broadband service likely could be achieved within a reasonable timeframe, provided necessary funding, available technology, and requisite public-private collaboration.
- Broadband Initiatives. The Connect Illinois Broadband Strategic Plan speaks to the importance of a wholistic approach to broadband investment and programming. This includes focus on broadband access, adoption, and utilization – which provide the programmatic framework for two existing initiatives, our Illinois Connected Communities program designed to build local broadband capacity and our Broadband READY program to promote "Regional Engagement for Adoption and Digital Equity." A third initiative, our Digital Navigator program, is designed to build digital literacy skills both at the local level and through statewide peer-group support. The recently announced Connect Illinois Computer Equity Network seeks to source, refurbish, and redistribute used computers for qualified households throughout the state. Each of these initiatives – including our namesake $400 million Connect Illinois Broadband Grant Program – either aligns with or could integrate concerted state-led effort toward improved broadband affordability.
Finally, a word about study limitations. The study relies on available federal mapping, which is based upon data widely considered to be inaccurate, with certain limitations in granularity, timeliness, and accountability. The Illinois Office of Broadband is in the midst of state-specific broadband data collection and mapping, the results of which should be available to the public by March 1, 2021.