By a 23-0 vote in favor, the Whiteside County Board approved a plan to bring reliable and robust fiber broadband access to underserved/unserved residents, businesses and organizations of Whiteside County. As recommended to the board by the Connect Whiteside Committee, the plan envisages equitable provision of approximately 1,000 miles of fiber broadband access to over 8,000 addresses and over 21,000 residents. The project is estimated at over $70 million. Whiteside County will provide $3 million from ARPA funds received by the county.
Whiteside County Chief Executive James Duffy said: “T[hi]The vote is an important milestone for Whiteside County. Bringing high-speed broadband fiber across the county is a big deal. It’s akin to bringing the railroad to communities in the 19th century or the Interstate Highway system after World War II. Deploying fiber broadband throughout the county will keep the county and its businesses competitive in today’s global environment. It will offer residents an improvement in their quality of life, be it remote work, education or healthcare, and better access to entertainment options. The committee has worked hard on this and I believe we have selected the right partner in Sand Prairie to help us deliver broadband fiber to every corner of rural Whiteside County.”
The county and Sand Prairie (a service unit of Jo-Carroll Energy, a local energy and broadband cooperative) will work together to leverage the historic state and federal broadband funds currently available to complete the project. Gary Camarano, Whiteside County Director of Economic Development, commented, “This project will solve a long-term problem, leverage local engagement to deliver strong results, and position the county to compete in a new digital economy that is expanding in population empowered by Illinois to work, live, learn and create wherever they choose.”
The county recognizes that too many of its residents do not have access to reliable, affordable broadband, a fact borne out by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of doing something about it.
The county took a methodical approach to measuring the challenge, setting clear goals, and selecting a provider partner in an open process. [This was] thanks in part to his participation in the Accelerate Illinois program, a collaborative effort supported by the Illinois Office of Broadband, the University of Illinois Extension, and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. The ConnectWhiteside committee of 18 members met over a 14-week period to discuss the connectivity issue; different methods to tackle it; best practices from across the nation; the results of a community survey. The committee then researched potential Internet service providers (ISPs) and then undertook an extensive interview process to select the ISP finalist. The result of the selection process was a unanimous vote by the committee to select local supplier Sand Prairie.
“Since 1939, we’ve been delivering utility solutions to improve the quality of life for underserved and unserved rural residents and communities in Northwest Illinois,” said Mike Casper, President and CEO of Jo-Carroll Energy. “We look forward to working with the county to accelerate the rollout of high-speed fiber optic internet services to homes, businesses and communities throughout Whiteside County.”
Why this matters Whiteside County, like thousands of other rural communities across the country, was faced with a problem that seemed beyond its resources—delivering reliable, robust, and affordable broadband fiber optic Internet. The reality of the problem was that private providers saw this market as economically unsustainable. The result has often been vast underserved and unserved areas of rural communities.
With the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 (and the havoc it has wreaked on the workplace, education, and healthcare), federal and state governments have provided historic amounts of grants to help local governments deal with this problem to support. The current window of opportunity to receive these grants requires action in the immediate future. Whiteside County will provide $3 million from ARPA funds received by the county. In addition, Jo-Carroll Energy will apply for appropriate grant funding to support the expansion in Whiteside County.
The result will be the equitable deployment of a reliable fiber broadband network across the county; availability of broadband access throughout the county; a response to the broadband injustices that currently exist in the county.
Whiteside County Treasurer Penny VanKampen said: “This is huge! As a family living in underserved rural Whiteside County, we have experienced the lack of fast and reliable internet connection. We have school-age children in the family and it has really been an issue with distance learning during the pandemic, as well as work-related and quality-of-life issues. I am really looking forward to a fast and reliable internet connection.”
What’s next? With the approval of the board, the county and Sand Prairie will enter into a collaborative agreement; carry out necessary technical studies and project plans; Write and submit grant applications. The process requires close collaboration between the parties to achieve the installation of 1000 miles of fiber.
The estimated duration of the project is five years. Camarano says: “This will definitely be worth it – for the improved quality of life and competitiveness it will bring to the county. This is a turning point for the county.”