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B-N leaders say affordable broadband builds social equity and economic development

BN Boys and Girls Club CEO Tony Morstatter talks about the importance of digital access to education and social equity.
Charlie Schlenker
Bloomington-Normal Boys and Girls Club CEO Tony Morstatter talks about the importance of digital access to education and social equity.

Bloomington-Normal leaders are emphasizing the need for more broadband connectivity in underserved and rural areas.

During a roundtable discussion Tuesday at Illinois Wesleyan University, Bloomington-Normal Boys and Girls Club Director Tony Morstatter said the pandemic revealed a need for more and affordable broadband when the club became a "Lift Zone" for schoolchildren taking remote classes.

"I would drive up to the club on a Saturday or Sunday. There would be cars in our parking lot or in front of the building because our families needed the connectivity. We were able to provide that throughout the neighborhood and let others in the community know that they could come," said Morstatter.

Comcast said a 10-year-old federally funded program called Internet Essentials that offers broadband to low- and moderate-income families is underused. Families that qualify for SNAP, Medicaid, or free and reduced lunches can sometimes get free Internet service or reduced cost credits.

Comcast Regional Vice President Sean McCarthy cited a recent study done by the National Skills Coalition on various job skills that supports the idea that digital skills produce economic development.

"Ninety percent of job openings in Illinois require some level of digital skills. Workers who have digital skills make more money. Higher wages equal more tax revenue and help an employee upskill as business and the marketplace evolve," said McCarthy, adding affordable broadband builds social equity, too.

Patrick Hoban, Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council pPresident and CEO, drew a parallel between today's broadband Internet technology and the dominant tech of the 1800s.

"If you didn't have rail, your community didn't exist," he said.

Hoban said the same is true today because prospective businesses have checklists and sites that don't check every box are eliminated from consideration.

Billions in funding available

The panel discussion was designed to build awareness of nearly $50 billion in state and national programs to expand broadband internet service. McCarthy from Comcast said the state alone has $350 million the latest round of grants. The filing period for those awards ends in May.

"We look at it from a perspective of how we can proactively build, working with our local municipalities and county organizations, to find out where they are planning on growing and how can we build to those industrial parks and developments to make sure we are on site before there is a demand so there will be no cost to the end user," said McCarthy.

McCarthy said Comcast also wants to expand to small towns.

Illinois Retail Merchants Association CEO Robb Karr praised that goal, saying it is important to allow small businesses to sell goods online and collect sales tax shared with small towns.

"Retail sales are the largest income generator for municipalities in Illinois," said Karr, adding it's particularly important for rural communities that are trying to remain viable.

"We can now purchase what we want from anywhere at any time. If you are a retailer and you are not in that area, you are not seen," said Karr.

Gordy Hultgren, Illinois Manufacturers' Association chief operating officer, said rural broadband also can keep small manufacturing firms in villages and towns alive. And Hoban said as the Baby Boom generation exits the workforce, Generation X is a lot smaller, noting the smaller workforce makes the existing telework trend and broadband connections to feed it even more important.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.