USDA Bradband photo

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.

Census internet map

“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.

A broadband advisory council formed two years ago will be involved in spending oversight, among other things.

“It’s amazing, to get that big a number,” Sullivan said. “Now what do we do with those dollars? We’re continuing the discussion. We’re in the process of making sure appointments are made. That group is going to be our sounding board. They’re going to have a lot of input on this process.”

He began by convening a working group of 60 to 70 people that includes broadband providers, Illinois Farm Bureau, agricultural cooperatives and industry leaders. There is no blueprint for where the money will go. There are a number of forms the capital bill could take, including public-private partnerships.

“Those are questions that we have to get answers to,” Sullivan said. “Some of the money could be allocated through a grant program, some of it through a loan program. The companies that provide internet services, they want to look at different options themselves. We see this definitely as a partnership, no doubt about it.

“We want to make sure that the dollars are spent properly. This advisory council is going to be very involved in this process. There is going to be oversight from different agencies.”

It is a complex issue. Options include laying of fiber optic cable, fixed wireless or other infrastructure. And part of the solution will necessarily involve avoiding duplication of work. The federal government, private enterprise and non-profit organizations are also working on improving broadband coverage.

“The next thing we have to decide is where we concentrate our efforts,” Sullivan said. “Do we look at the unserved areas, or do we look at the under-served areas? Are we going to concentrate on getting the speeds up to a specific level?

“In our calculations, we’ve also taken into account that technology is changing every day. A few years down the road, that will make providing additional services we don’t even know exist yet. There is a lot of work yet to do.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.