Digital Divide programs secure windfall in telecommunications rewrite bill - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Digital Divide programs secure windfall in telecommunications rewrite bill

An Illinois telecommunications rewrite bill has resulted in $30 million for two initiatives aimed at bridging the digital divide.

Nestled in the recently passed Illinois telecommunications rewrite bill (HB 2900) are two little-known measures to address issues of technology access and infrastructure for all Illinois residents .  The bill, which focuses primarily on ensuring competitive practices and quality of service within the telecommunications industry, also creates a Digital Divide Elimination Fund and a Digital Divide Elimination Infrastructure Fund.  Both funds combined will have at minimum an unprecedented $30 million in funding over the next three years. "Digital divide" describes the stark lack of access to information technology and its benefits to low income populations and/or segments of the African-American, Latino, disabled and senior citizen populations.

Both funds in the telecommunications rewrite bill seek to bridge the digital divide in Illinois in different ways.  The Digital Divide Elimination Fund will provide money for community technology centers (CTCs), public hospitals, libraries and park districts in their efforts to address the digital divide.  Grants can be used to fund volunteer recruitment and management, training and instruction, infrastructure, and related goods and services for these organizations. 

The Digital Divide Elimination Infrastructure Fund focuses on encouraging the creation of broadband infrastructures for areas with limited broadband infrastructure, such as rural areas and parts of the City of Chicago.  Funds will be used for the construction of high-speed data transmission in areas of Illinois where telecommunications carriers have sought exemptions from providing these services. 

In addition to these funds, the Illinois Commerce Commission will also monitor and analyze the status and deployment of telecommunications services to consumers, and any resulting “digital divisions” between consumers. 

            These programs will be financed through three distinct sources of funding.  The first, and likely largest, source of capital for these funds will come from a settlement stemming from Ameritech’s billing and business practices with small business customers.  Apart from the $90 million that Ameritech must refund its small business customers, the company must also pay $30 million over three years to finance both digital divide funds.  Additionally, the funds will be financed by civil penalties paid by telecommunications carriers for violations of the Public Utilities Act, which the bill amends.  Forty percent of all civil penalties paid will be shared equally between the two funds.  Lastly, telecommunications consumers will have the option of making voluntary contributions to both funds.  Grants made under the Digital Divide Elimination Fund will be administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.  A five-member committee appointed by Gov. George Ryan and legislative leaders will oversee the grant making process.

            The telecommunications rewrite bill incorporates many components of the Eliminate the Digital Divide bill (HB 3353) that the Metropolitan Planning Council supported through the Community Technology Center Network of Chicago (CTCNet Chicago).  The bill, sponsored in the House by representatives Constance Howard, Julie Hamos, George Scully, Jr., Robert Ryan Jr., Cynthia Soto and Judy Erwin passed the House and, like many other bills competing in this tight fiscal year, died in the Senate Rules Committee.   The bill sought approximately $10 million to expand access to technology in distressed Illinois communities by establishing funding opportunities for community-based technology centers, computer recycling programs and technology job-training initiatives. 

This is a timely windfall for digital divide issues.  Federal funding sources for community based technology initiatives are shrinking, while local demands for such funding only grow.   Proposed cuts include $55 million from the U.S. Department of Education budget for education technology program funding; a 66 percent decrease in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Opportunities Program, from $46 million to $15 million; and a 9.5 percent reduction in funds for U.S. Department of Labor discretionary programs, where Workforce Investment Act programs are housed.

While federal monies for community technology disappear, local demand for such funding only grows.  The Illinois Community Technology Fund (ICTF), a three-year initiative that resulted from the Ameritech, SBC merger,  intended to “serve as a catalyst to ensure that citizens are prepared to live and work in a growing technological society.” The Fund received 450 funding requests totaling $17 million, exceeding the $1.4 million capacity of the grants program in 2001 by 88 percent. 

Additionally, a recent survey conducted in Chicago by the Mayor’s Council of Technology Advisors and the Metropolitan Planning Council shows that agencies providing community technology access and programs face critical obstacles in providing high quality services and state-of-the-art programming.  Many respondents indicated a need for funding for staff, programs that provide high-quality services to underserved populations in job-skills development, programs to align community educational programs with school curricula and a wide variety of other community programs.  Additionally, nearly half of the respondents operate on a dial-up modem, severely limiting their capacity to provide programs such as distance learning, interactive programming and joint ventures with schools and libraries.

Chicago area communities continue to require additional services and resources to address inequalities in access to technology and how technology is used by area residents. Funding provided through the telecommunications rewrite bill is a significant step forward in meeting this demand. 

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