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“Dear Illinois Broadband Enthusiasts…”

This content originally appeared on my former Chicagosphere online-media blog, hosted on the Chicago Tribune‘s ChicagoNow network.

The State of Illinois is crowing about a broadband technology grant that will help few people in northern Illinois who really need affordable choices when it comes to Internet service. Who benefits? That depends on whether you can see Cabrini–or cornfields–out your kitchen window.

In November, I reported on the Kenneth Cole Awearness Blog about new legislation in Spain directing broadband providers in the country to offer fast Internet connections to people regardless of economic means. That means even if you’re poor in Spain, you still have a right to fast Internet.

On Saturday, Progress Illinois and the Associated Press reported that Illinois is about to receive $11.9 million in federal stimulus funds to enhance broadband coverage in the “northern part of the state.” The A.P. should have dug a little deeper. The grant is destined for a rather small “northern part” of Illinois, indeed. The monies will be stewarded by the Dekalb  Advancement of Technology Authority–a quasi-governmental organization without a web address that will administer the funds solely within DeKalb County.

The A.P. says Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s office expects the grant to fund broadband access for  “schools, colleges and universities, municipalities, medical facilities and other community agencies.” A beefier story from the DeKalb Daily Chronicle details just who those community institutions and agencies are.

I”m all for broadband investments in rural counties, but lets do the math. In the most recent census count, DeKalb County had a population of about 103,000 with about 11.4% of the population living below the poverty line. That means each and every resident of DeKalb County will benefit from about $115 of federal stimulus funds to make their web access faster.

By comparison, Cook County, the second-largest county in America and the heart of Chicagoland has almost 5.3 million people, 13.5% of whom live below the poverty line.  population below the poverty line. In Chicago, the heart of Cook County, 19.6% of the city’s 2.9 million residents live in poverty.

For Cook County residents to benefit from a similar broadband grant as DeKalb residents, that grant would need to total almost $610 million, or about $334 million for Chicagoans alone. Personally, I’d like to see numbers like that the next time Gov. Quinn crows about a federal plan to enhance broadband in northern Illinois.

Not that hundreds of farmers don’t deserve fast access to the Internet. But so do tens of thousands of poor urban Illinois families currently saddled with outrageous broadband prices for cable modem and DSL service–not to mention spotty coverage from new services like CLEAR Wimax.

Someday maybe the state will have its technology priorities in the right place. Although a recent post on the official and largely inscrutable Broadband Illinois website leaves a lot of room for doubt. Discussing deadlines for state grant assistance, it begins, “Dear Illinois Broadband Enthusiasts…”

The greeting alone says it all. It might as well say, “Dear Illinois Broadband Hobbyists.” When Illinois finally joins the rest of us in 2010 in realizing fast Internet should be a fact of life, maybe poor inner-city Chicagoans will finally have real, affordable choice when it comes to a speedy portal to the web.

Until then, my best advice to them is to head west. Perhaps if they traded Cabrini for cornfields, then the state might take their technology needs seriously, too.

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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