At a time when society has increasingly gone virtual, lawmakers in Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois are in various stages of efforts to improve broadband connectivity and bring high-speed Internet to regions where it doesn’t already exist.
Local officials, however, emphasize that this discussion is not limited to the chambers of state leadership. Rather, it’s a conversation playing out in local communities and even individual households.
“(Broadband connectivity) is an expectation of individuals,” said Dave Lyons, sustainable innovations consultant for Greater Dubuque Development Corp. “Access anywhere, at any time, and on any device, is the rule of the day. People will move companies, they will even move houses, based on the ability (to connect to high-speed internet).”
Lyons’ comments come after Iowa leaders recently advanced a bill aimed at improving broadband connectivity throughout the state.
The new bill would utilize state grants to support the expansion of high-speed internet into areas where it currently does not exist.
Similar efforts are afoot in both Illinois and Wisconsin, where new populations have recently gained access to broadband internet but large segments are continuing to live without these high-speed connections.
The societal changes ushered in by the pandemic — which forced millions to attend work and school virtually — have cast broadband connectivity in a new light.
Lyons said this transition was easier in some areas than others. While those with strong internet connections could seamlessly transition to virtual classrooms and offices, those with spotty access were largely left behind.
It’s a phenomenon that drove home the inequities of current access and is now promoting change.
“There was this groundswell of support in communities across the state with people recognizing this cannot ever happen again,” Lyons said.
In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers recently declared 2021 “The Year of Broadband Access” and expressed a desire to put $200 million in the state budget for its expansion.
To longtime economic development leaders in Wisconsin, the discussion of broadband expansion is nothing new.
“I’ve been here for 21 years and people have been talking about it from day one,” said Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County (Wis.) Economic Development Corp. “I would say it’s just been within the last five years or so that I have really seen things improve.”
Brisbois believes there are a few factors behind this sudden swing, including a changing perception about what broadband brings to the table.
He acknowledged that many people once viewed high-speed internet as “a way to be able to stream Netflix.” That perception has faded in recent years as the population has embraced broadband as a means for accessing education and conducting business.
Brisbois believes communities also experience significant benefits when competition enters the market. In other words, when two providers establish a foothold within a given community, the natural market forces come into play and the costs go down.
Many communities in southwest Wisconsin have arrived at the point where competition kicks in and markets begin to mature. Other communities — predominantly the smaller, rural ones — have “spotty coverage” and certain areas merely have access to dial-up internet.
This reality doesn’t just complicate current circumstances, it stifles the potential for future growth.
“We’re at a point now where people are reconsidering how they work and where they work,” Brisbois said. “There are some people who are considering moving to smaller communities, who want that rural lifestyle. But they can only move there if there’s high-speed internet.”
Illinois initially launched a program in 2019 to expand broadband access across the entire state, but local leaders say that vision hasn’t come to fruition just yet.
Emily Legel, executive director of NW Illinois Economic Development, estimated that around 20% of the population in Jo Daviess County lacks access to broadband connectivity.
She emphasized that the pandemic has both reinforced the need for greater connectivity and shined a light on the impediments to such growth, particularly when it comes to the older population.
Legel said that online signups for the administration of the vaccine have put many senior citizens in a position where they cannot utilize the most efficient means for acquiring it. Improving access means not only providing broadband, but also working with older demographics to show them how to take advantage of improved internet access.
“These are people who were not raised with the technology. They are not familiar with it,” she said. “The older population needs help walking through computer literacy.”
Legel believes that bringing broadband to all communities will require a mixture of public and private investment.
Private companies are willing and able to lay fiber and bring access to new areas, but only will do so in regions that where it makes financial sense, she said. Government must fill in the gaps — through grant programs and other initiatives — to incentivize the buildout of broadband in other areas.
“I think both of those things will have to come into play to really bring broadband to everybody,” Legel said.