Illinois works to bring the Internet to rural and low-income areas - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Illinois works to bring the Internet to rural and low-income areas

Two new telecommunications funds in Illinois, each seeded with $15 million from settlements with Ameritech, will help to close the "digital divide" in low-income areas.

Illinois lawmakers hope to introduce Internet service to rural and low-income areas as part of a group of wide-ranging revisions to telecommunications law in Illinois.

The new legislation establishes two new funds, seeded with $15 million each from a settlement with Ameritech, to provide grants for computer equipment and training. Future fines levied against telecom companies will provide continued funding.

"The truth is, there's not a lot of money out there. This is the first major program at the state level," said Scott Goldstein, vice president of policy and planning for the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council.

The not-for-profit group is comprised of business and civic leaders working to improve the region on several fronts, including telecommunications policy.

The Digital Divide Elimination Fund and the Digital Divide Elimination Infrastructure Fund will be administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.

Community groups, hospitals, libraries and park districts are among the intended recipients. The funds are part of a major telecommunications bill to be signed into law today.

"It might be your Boys and Girls Club or YMCA," said Goldstein. In the Chicago region, he said only 25 percent of people comprising the lower-third of incomes have access to the Internet compared with 75 percent of all higher-income people.

Grant recipients must provide computer access and educational services for at least 12 hours a week, according to the new law.

The grants may be used to pay for transmission lines and computer equipment but also will be available for other assistance, such as training.

"Setting up a computer lab just isn't enough. You have to staff. You just can't have computers available for teenagers for open access, you need something exciting going on," Goldstein said.

The law also requires the Illinois Commerce Commission to monitor and analyze how Internet and other computer services are being introduced to customers and any resulting "digital divisions" between consumers.

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