By PETER HANCOCK
Capitol News Illinois
SPRINGFIELD – State officials on Monday announced the opening of a second round of grant opportunities for businesses and organizations to expand access to broadband internet service in underserved communities.
Speaking at a news conference in Staunton, about 40 miles northeast of St. Louis, Gov. JB Pritzker said the program will help close a digital divide that existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many people to start working from home and students to attend classes remotely.
“While we didn’t anticipate a pandemic, even as we passed this program into law in 2019, we knew that the inequities in our learning systems required urgent action,” Pritzker said.
Funding for the grants comes from the $400 million Connect Illinois program, which was part of the bipartisan $45 billion capital improvements program known as Rebuild Illinois that lawmakers approved in 2019.
In addition to that money, Pritzker said, lawmakers also dedicated $20 million in state funds to the Illinois Century Network, which provides secure broadband connections to K-12 schools and higher education institutions. And the state is using a portion of its federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES Act funding to address inequities in digital access for students.
Pritzker said the goal of those initiatives is to have universal access to broadband service in Illinois by 2024.
Michael Negron, assistant director of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said grants are available for four types of projects: expanding access to broadband services; projects that drive innovation in areas such as telehealth; improving connectivity in urban areas; and investments that improve equity in broadband access in disadvantaged communities.
To be eligible for grants in the first three categories, applicants must put up at least 50 percent of the cost in the form of nonstate matching funds. But for projects to improve equity in disadvantaged communities, Pritzker said, the state is relaxing that requirement.
“Well, as you know, when you get into some of the poorest communities, there are often businesses who don’t want to make the investment because they don’t believe that they’ll be able to get the subscription revenue, for example, that people would have to pay in order to get broadband in those areas,” Pritzker said.
Eligible applicants include internet service providers, rural cooperatives, nonprofits and local governments. Grants are available in amounts up to $5 million per project. Subsequent rounds will follow over the course of the next several years.
The application period is open from Nov. 1 through March 1. More information about applying for the grants is available on DCEO’s Notice of Funding Opportunity.
During the first round of grants, the state distributed $50 million for projects that brought in an additional $65 million in nonstate matching funds, for a total of $115 million. That money funded projects that are expected to connect more than 26,000 homes, businesses, farms and institutions in all 10 of the state’s economic development regions, officials said.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.