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Efforts to improve rural broadband grow in Illinois

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ReConnect-in-Hamilton-Co

DAHLGREN (WSIL) -- Bringing broadband internet to rural communities throughout Illinois is getting some attention from leaders both in Springfield and Washington.

Just last week, Governor JB Pritzker announced $50 million towards the state-wide program called Connect Illinois, and the USDA's ReConnect program is awarding funds to Jefferson, Wayne and Hamilton counties.

"It's amazing when you stop and look at the number of people in this area, and across the state of Illinois, that do not have high-speed service," said Illinois' USDA Rural Development state director Douglas Wilson. He was in Hamilton County Friday to announce $3.4 million for broadband. Hamilton County Telephone Co-Op will use that funding to build out fiber-to-premise to more than 600 homes, much of it in its southern district.  

USDA Rural development operates more than 40 different programs, "And broadband is becoming a huge part of that," said Wilson, adding that programs like ReConnect will benefit rural homes and businesses.

"By investing this money into these co-ops, telephone districts and others, we're helping bring economic potential to them, healthcare potential, it really helps level the field between rural and urban," said Wilson.

Much like the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, without state and federal funding, broadband providers would find it difficult to afford building services in rural communities.  

"Really it's helping those folks that no other business would come to, to bring them high-speed internet," said Co-Op general manager Kevin Pyle.

Pyle said they filed for the USDA grant last year and plan to continue pursuing state funding to connect the region. He estimates that once the infrastructure project begins in earnest, it will take nearly two years to complete.

"I would venture to say that this is just a drop in the bucket. This is needed everywhere," said Pyle. "I think our country is at least ten years behind on getting this technology out, and we have a lot of work (still) to do."

Completing that work means more than increased speeds for surfing the net, it also means an increase in home-healthcare options.  State Rep. Dave Severin was at Friday's announcement and supported the grant. He described several of its benefits and described watching a tele-health demonstration last year.

"And so they had a cardiac person, like that (snaps finger)." said Severin. "So what an amazing opportunity for our rural areas to be connected, immediately."

The USDA ReConnect Pilot Program funding is made available through grants, loans and a grant-and-loan combo. Jefferson and Wayne counties will benefit from that grant-and-loan combo with nearly $13 million awarded to them late last year. Hamilton County was awarded a 100-percent grant.

A list of ReConnect Program awardees can be found here.

Joe Rehana

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