Lake County to pursue plan to increase broadband access and connectivity
A newly-formed special committee of the Lake County Board plans to address inequities and find ways to increase connectivity and access to high-speed internet across the county.
The inaugural meeting Friday of the special committee on broadband ended with an enthusiastic recommendation for the county to hire a consultant to guide what is regarded as a complex but essential task.
"Our job is to come up with the actual plan -- how do we want to connect our residents?" said committee Chair Jennifer Clark, a county board member from Libertyville. "This is a once in a generation opportunity. If we do this right, we're setting up Lake County to have a robust infrastructure for the next 30 years."
Broadband is known by different names but essentially is internet service that is always on and faster than dial-up, said Betsy Brandon, Lake County's FOIA coordinator, who is assisting with the project.
Access to high-speed internet became an issue for some students learning remotely during the pandemic but its value also has increased in areas such as telehealth, working from home and public access to government services.
Brandon said accessibility is based on where an internet provider has coverage. Some areas, including state parks or forest preserves, may be unserved but there are many more areas considered to be underserved because the service is inconsistent.
"We have a lot of service but it may not work very well," she said.
Information provided to the committee showed there are 93,719 households and businesses in incorporated areas and 11,991 households and businesses in unincorporated areas.
That equates to 262,004 people -- more than a third of the county's population -- considered to be underserved based on connection speed.
"That's why we're here today," Clark said.
"I don't think we can understate the importance of this," noted Commissioner J. Kevin Hunter, a county board member from Ingleside. "It's going to be an education process for all of us."
Timing is key as there are various sources for different aspects of broadband accessibility becoming available. One of them is the $42.45 billion federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program.
Funds will be distributed locally by the Illinois Office of Broadband, which will be in the planning stage for the next two years. The state will coordinate during that time but local entities will have to determine specific needs and what's best for them.
"We have to provide vision and let them know where the gaps (in accessibility) are," Brandon said.
Other funding opportunities include federal programs focused on the adoption and use of broadband geared toward "digital literacy" and inclusion, she added.
"It's like a puzzle," Clark said of the funding possibilities. "The good thing is we can get all these interesting pieces to make it all work."
The next step is for the county to request proposals from consultants to research availability of broadband and/or other internet services and evaluate current and future technology needs among other directives.