Illinois, Benton Institute Work Together to Close the Digital Divide

How collaboration between government and a nonprofit organization yields better broadband for state residents

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Illinois, Benton Institute Work Together to Close the Digital Divide
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Expanding broadband access is a complex task, and often state officials benefit from the counsel of experts and community leaders in order to effectively implement it. The Illinois Office of Broadband has partnered with the Evanston-based Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, a nonprofit organization focused on deploying open, affordable, high-performance broadband connections to everyone in the U.S. The partnership has led to innovative new programs that address key broadband issues and may offer lessons for other states looking to harness the knowledge of external partners to close the digital divide.

This interview with Adrianne Furniss, executive director of the Benton Institute, and Matt Schmit, deputy director of the Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What’s the relationship between Benton and the state of Illinois?

Schmit: Within months of its inception in September 2019, the Illinois Office of Broadband (IOB) forged a strategic partnership with the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. As a very lean operation with just two dedicated staff, IOB needed to expand our capacity if we wanted to do more than simply administer Connect Illinois, which at $400 million is the largest state matching grant program ever.

Furniss: Matt invited me to a meeting of the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council—that’s the group of 25 folks from the private sector, government, and the community that advises on the Connect Illinois program and related matters—and, quite simply, we hit it off!

Schmit: We believed that Benton would be the perfect partner to work with us to fulfill Governor J.B. Pritzker’s commitment to broadband ubiquity, the Connect Illinois investment, and the promise of serious and sustained digital equity programming.

Furniss: We started by comparing our respective agendas: Benton’s “Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s” and IOB’s Broadband Strategic Plan. Our collaboration grew naturally from there. We started pitching local funders to support digital equity initiatives, in particular the Illinois Connected Communities (ICC) program, a partnership between the IOB, Benton, and local philanthropy that promotes local broadband planning and capacity building. Our partnership with ICC has expanded to include a biweekly newsletter, Illinois Broadband Connections, which now has almost 1,000 subscribers—mostly from Illinois, but also readers from outside of the state interested in Illinois’ comprehensive broadband approach.

Schmit: By the fall of last year, staff from Benton and IOB were meeting weekly, and we created the Illinois Broadband Lab, which houses IOB’s and Benton’s increasingly wide-ranging and overlapping work in broadband research, publication, and engagement.

Q: How does this partnership improve outcomes—for state programs, for broadband deployment, and for Illinois residents?  

Schmit: Our partnership is producing outcomes in three primary areas: research, community planning and capacity building, and digital equity.  

Furniss: At Benton, we’re in the business of providing resourcesresearch and analysis, newsletters, publications, podcasts, as well as legal and policy expertiseto policymakers at all levels of government, public interest and social justice groups, communities, philanthropy, media, and more. These are the tools and expertise that we bring to IOB, and that led to the creation of the Illinois Broadband Connections newsletter and our joint efforts to tell the story of state broadband investments.

Schmit: IOB and Benton are also focused on improving digital equity. We’re working together on a program called Broadband Regional Engagement for Adoption + Digital Equity (READY), which provides grant funding to galvanize the collaboration of key broadband stakeholders at the regional level. We’re hoping this work helps us identify scalable solutions for broadband access, adoption, and utilization across all 10 of Illinois’ economic development regions—including ways to expand telehealth and remote learning, and to integrate complementary programming such as refurbished computer distribution and digital literacy skills-building.

Q: You mentioned the Illinois Connected Communities program. Can you say a little more about that?  

Furniss: Sure. Through the program, we engage a cohort of communities, ranging from rural counties to Chicago-area neighborhoods, to drive planning and capacity building for broadband access, adoption, and utilization. The ICC program also includes a $15,000 state seed grant to each community, along with approximately 50 hours of Benton-led expert consultation/facilitation, plus access to a best practice curriculum. By the end of the yearlong program, each community will have completed a community-driven broadband strategic plan with the active participation of its local steering team, and mentoring and advice from national and state broadband experts that Benton brings to the table.

So far, we’ve seen success with the program: It launched in the summer of 2020, and we’re currently working with 12 communities. We’ll announce a second round of community participants within the next couple of months. 

Q: Do you know if other states have worked with local experts the way you’re doing?

Furniss: There are some good examples from across the country. The Reimagine New York Commission, for one, is chaired by Eric Schmidt, former Google CEO and executive chairman and co-founder of Schmidt Futures, and includes chairs or presidents of three of New York’s major foundations as well as educators, innovators, labor organizers, and business leaders. Together, they’re working on reducing the digital divide, improving access to health care, and creating more and better employment in an increasingly digital economy.

In Minnesota, the Blandin Foundation created the Blandin Broadband Communities program,  a two-year program that partners the foundation with rural Minnesota communities to try to build local know-how and take next steps to advance local broadband initiatives.

Q: The pandemic has brought the digital divide even more to the forefront. What broadband challenges are you seeing in Illinois?

Schmit: COVID-19 has sharpened our focus on the pressing nature of the digital divide. We are reminded daily that it’s not just a question of who has and doesn’t have high-speed internet access; it’s a matter of affordability—of the service and the requisite devices, and digital literacy skills, too. And the divide doesn’t just hurt people in rural areas, or people in urban areas; it affects both, and, in particular, our communities of color and senior population.

In response, last year the state’s General Assembly directed the Broadband Advisory Council—remember, it was at a meeting of the council where Adrianne and I first connected—to study various questions related to broadband access and affordability.

Q: Such as?

Schmit: Such as cost estimates for three different options: universal broadband access where existing broadband infrastructure is insufficient; free or affordable broadband access for all residents; and free or affordable broadband access for those experiencing poverty.

Furniss: The affordability study suggested that Illinois is on the right path—but that struggles persist.

Q: What kind of struggles?

Furniss: Specifically, the study identified a sizable “homework gap”: According to the 2019 American Community Survey, over 285,000 Illinois households, which translates into 1 in 5 school-aged children, don’t have broadband service at home. And the same study indicates that over 1.1 million Illinois households don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer at home.

Q: Those are some pretty startling numbers. What is the state doing to address them?

Schmit: First, we need to ensure universal broadband access throughout the state. The same study confirms that the $400 million devoted to Connect Illinois grants is within the estimated range of what would be required to bring access to all Illinois residents, so we’re on the right track on the infrastructure front.

Second, last December, Gov. Pritzker joined key stakeholders to launch the Connect Illinois Computer Equity Network, a comprehensive initiative to expand digital access for low-income households. The idea is to use a statewide network of public and private partners, including significant philanthropic support, to distribute refurbished computers, improve digital literacy, and expand workforce development. With dedicated warehouse/retail space in both the Chicago Southland and East St. Louis regions, this program aims to redeploy at least 20,000 fully refurbished computers in year one through distribution events in every county of the state.

Third, Illinois is working toward digital equity through the Illinois Digital Navigator Network, in which a “navigator” connects households in need with assets such as low-cost subscriptions and programs that lend or provide devices to households. These navigators can be volunteers or cross-trained staff who already work in social service agencies, libraries, health care facilities, and other public or nonprofit organizations. They can offer either remote or in-person guidance to residents who need it.

Q: What lessons could you share with other states or organizations that might be considering learning from the Illinois approach?

Furniss: One of the lessons we’ve learned is that we can create more impact together than if we’d acted alone. As Matt pointed out, the IOB has just two full-time employees, and this lack of human capital is something many state programs struggle with. Benton was able to provide support by using our existing strengths—deep expertise, relationships with national leaders and researchers, and extensive editorial and publishing capacity—to help accelerate and expand the state’s capacity to respond to this challenge. Benton and the state are enthusiastic partners, and it’s been an incredible experience.

Schmit: Quite simply, tackling today’s broadband challenges will require meaningful cross-sector collaboration. Neither the public, private, nor nonprofit sectors can go it alone and expect sustained success.

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