In Illinois, communities are coming together with the assistance of Governor J.B. Pritzker and the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society to close the digital divide. The Illinois Connected Communities grant program, announced in August of 2020, is supporting 28 communities and initiatives from across Illinois that serve a wide variety of residents and needs. The first 12 communities were announced by the Governor’s office and are preparing to connect public housing communities, students, young professionals, and entire villages. This cohort will tackle connectivity issues ranging for access to adoption.

Across Illinois, 387,000 residents lack access to broadband internet, and over 2.5 Million do not have a subscription. These households are not only missing the ability to connect with family and friends during a pandemic, but they are unable to benefit from distance learning, telework, telehealth, and the many other internet-enabled services that power our society. In the age of COVID, residents in Illinois and in every state are realizing that bringing fast, affordable, and reliable broadband within reach for every household must be approached as a critical and time-sensitive service.

In Champaign, a town of 88,000 and a Next Century Cities member, the Public Housing Authority is preparing to utilize their funding and expert consultations to unlock additional broadband capacity for their residents. With over 6% of residents in their community disconnected, Champaign’s leaders understand that closing the digital divide must be a top priority for their municipal government. 

Brown County School District 1, in Brown County, is going to activate their funding and support to hire a community convener who will bring together a variety of stakeholders to develop a strategic plan and increase broadband capacity for students and businesses. Brown County will also be joined by three other school districts including Mattoon School District 2, Palatine School District 15, and Park Forest-Chicago Heights School District 163 who are all working to connect their students and surrounding communities to support the coming school year. 

Harvey City, a community of 24,000 in Cook County, believes that their access to funding will “right the wrong” of digital equity in their community. Their mayor believes that ubiquitous broadband access for the people of Harvey is as important as electric, water, and gas utilities. They will be using the funding to target communities that have been passed over before and ensure all of their residents have access to fast, affordable broadband.

In Southwestern Illinois, the Leadership Council SWIL will be supporting over 700,000 residents with their broadband grant and support. Their executive director and state senator are excited to direct funding towards telehealth, remote work, and distance learning. Leadership Council SWIL will also be using their funding to support broadband expansion and advances in agriculture, a project unique to their community. 

In Mckinley Park, a Chicago Neighborhood, the fully-volunteer Mckinley Park Development Council will use their funding to unlock opportunities for local businesses. Especially in the age of COVID, residents recognize that without a reliable broadband connection, their businesses cannot innovate and stay competitive within Chicago or nationwide. They plan to bolster resiliency within their community and create a brighter future for their neighbors.

Mercer County’s nonprofit, Mercer County Better Together, plans to invest in solving a problem facing communities in every state – flawed broadband maps. The executive director of Mercer County Better Together plans to map broadband availability in the county, recognize service gaps and discrepancies, and start the work to close their digital divide. 

The Neighborhood Network Alliance will be serving the South Shore community of Chicago. The network currently supports neighborhood block clubs that work to unlock the potential of their tight knit communities. South Shore plans  to make a fast, affordable, and reliable broadband access a possibility for every resident. A network is known for their expertise in building networks and human capital and neighborhood support, this project will be a continuation of that legacy. 

The Region 1 Planning Council, representing Winnebago County and the City of Rockford in Northern Illinois, will be putting their funding to work by supporting economic growth and broadband capacity expansion across the region. The planning council is uniquely positioned to convene resources across municipalities and ensure that network expansion is interconnected and supportive of all people in Northern Illinois. 

In North Central Illinois, just over 1,000 call the Village of Flanagan home. While all residents of Flanagan are considered “served” with broadband, only 78.7% of Livingston County residents possess a home broadband subscription. Flanagan will use their money and support to expand broadband capacity for their residents and ensure no one is left behind in the digital age. 

Across Illinois, these twelve communities are coming to the table from different places  to address similar problems. Whether they are connecting students, securing telehealth services, or expanding economic opportunities, all of these community leaders want their neighbors to experience the benefits of high-speed connectivity. 

Governor Pritzker and the Benton Institute have committed to connecting their state and over the next 12 months. Throughout the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, Next Century Cities will follow developments in  these communities and compile a documentary of their efforts to tackle the digital divide. 

The pandemic has created a unique crisis for local leaders to connect residents at an expedited pace, and the Connect Illinois program will be key to meeting that goal.