DANVILLE – Shiloh schools technology director Terry Sullivan knows firsthand how the lack of broadband Internet access limits what students and teachers can do in and out of the classroom.
That's why he was very excited Tuesday afternoon when Gov. Pat Quinn announced at Cellular One in the Danville Village Mall a $24.5 million project to bring broadband Internet access to rural areas in 11 counties in East Central Illinois.
Sullivan said getting broadband access to Shiloh schools puts the rural district on an equal footing with larger school districts.
"So I am really, really optimistic about this," said Sullivan, who also serves on the state's broadband deployment council.
Quinn told about 75 people who gathered for Tuesday's announcement at the mall that investing in the development of broadband Internet technology is as important to personal and economic development as the interstate highway system was 50 years ago.
"What we have to do now, 50 years later, is build an Internet superhighway system," said Quinn, adding that the state doesn't want a divide where some have access to that superhighway system and some do not. "We want to make sure everyone is in and nobody is left out."
Cellular One of East Central Illinois, headquartered in Danville, has been awarded a very competitive federal grant totaling $6.1 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service and a $6.1 million loan to expand broadband services in rural areas within Clay, Clark, Coles, Crawford, Cumberland, Douglas, Edgar, Jasper, Lawrence, Richland and Vermilion counties. The state's Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has pledged $1 million for the project and Cellular One of East Central Illinois will provide an additional $11.2 million in private funds. The federal grant dollars were made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Cellular One of East Central Illinois, a privately owned and locally operated company, submitted the grant application for the $6.1 million grant funds so the company can deploy 3G, or third-generation, fixed and mobile wireless broadband services in the underserved areas of the 11 counties.
According to Cellular One officials, the project must be complete within three years and is expected to benefit 66,500 people in East Central Illinois as well as 7,123 businesses and 704 community institutions and create or maintain 267 jobs in the area.
The company currently has 54 cellular towers with seven more expected to be functioning in the next two months and nine more planned in the next two years. This project will increase the tower count to 100 within three years.
Compared with dial-up Internet access, broadband access allows more data, and multiple types of data, to be transmitted to and from the Internet at faster rates, but broadband access is not as readily available to homes, businesses and institutions in rural areas of the country.
Quinn said in 2000 about 8 million people had high-speed Internet access in the United States. Last year, that number had increased to 200 million, but there are still 100 million people in the country without high-speed access.
"That's why we're here today; to make sure no one is left out," said Quinn, who explained that expanding high-speed access will not only benefit educational institutions, but will benefit hospitals, law enforcement, economic development and create jobs.
Cassy Carter, chief executive officer and general manager of Cellular One of East Central Illinois, said the $24.5 million project will put people to work in their company as well as other companies, including positions like engineers and technical support and construction jobs. She said the company will be able to provide wireless broadband services to many in the 11-county area who have limited or no internet service.
This grant was part of the USDA's second round of broadband funding made available through the federal Recovery Act.
Colleen Callahan, state director of USDA's rural development, said altogether seven Illinois projects have received funding awards in the last two months.
"In the same way USDA helped to transform the rural landscape with telephone and electricity, our goal now is to transform rural America by providing access to high speed internet service," Callahan said.
State Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign, said at Tuesday's announcement that he officially supported this project but he also understands the importance of high-speed Internet access in rural areas when he and his family lived in Gifford a few years ago and his wife wanted to telecommute to work.
"We need to be able to communicate with each other," he said.
And state Rep. Bill Black, R-Danville, called this project the interstate highway of the 21st century and emphasized that companies will not consider locating in an area that does not have fast and affordable Internet access. He said this project is about investing today for a bright tomorrow.
"We couldn't be investing in anything better," he said.