Will the FCC finally get the signal?

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In the rush to exploit 5G technology, those living in unincorporated McHenry County have been left in the lurch, waiting for a promised expansion that may never arrive.

Tucked within a $900 billion coronavirus relief bill passed by Congress in December 2020 was $7 billion to expand internet access. Similarly, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in the fall, slated $65 billion for broadband internet. Still, for populous areas of the county – including small towns – reliable service remains elusive at the very time when more of us are working and studying at home.

The smallest percentage, about $2.75 billion, is to ensure digital equity for disadvantaged areas. Another $14.2 billion is going to the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program. It provides a monthly subsidy of $30 to help eligible households afford broadband. But the “lyin’s” share – $42.45 billion – will be distributed in the form of state grants from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The Woodstock nonprofit Internet Freedom for McHenry County was among a handful of community organizations that recently received a $15,000 grant from Illinois to help gauge demand and possible solutions to improve broadband access in the county.

“My plan to deliver broadband infrastructure to every corner of Illinois by 2024 requires an ambitious, all-hands-on-deck approach,” Gov. JB Pritzker announced last June. “In the 21st century, access to health care, education and economic opportunity rely on digital connectivity. The time is now to bring high-speed internet access to the front doors of all Illinoisans.”

Internet Freedom President David Gutowsky likened the current situation to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. Under the program, the federal Rural Electrification Administration was supposed to provide loans to help companies finance the installation of electricity in rural areas. But the plan proved expensive and unwieldy. Instead, it opted to fund farmer cooperatives, at low interest rates, to build out the electrical infrastructure.

“No one is going to come do it,” Gutowsky said. “We’re in that same situation. What the county is doing, rolling out middle-mile fiber, it is not doing the last-mile fiber to your house.”

He and others believe cooperatives may be the best solution today, as well, with 75% of the cost to extend fiber internet service funded by the government and users paying off the balance over time.

Palatine resident John Heng, who runs a small internet service provider in downstate Cairo, said the possible solutions run the gamut. Satellite connections often are overwhelmed by the traffic volumes, so some companies are exploring point-to-point wireless connections.

But those require towers, as do cellular systems. The best approach, he said, could be one that uses fiber up to a point and then an over-air signal to each home in a particular neighborhood.

Anna Read, a senior officer with the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Broadband Access Initiative, told NPR recently that a necessary first step is creating broadband maps to better identify underserved areas, which tend to be poorer and more rural.

Ironically, those are the same people most at risk after a decision by AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile to shut down its 3G service by year’s end. A survey by the Rural Wireless Association found rural subscribers already are experiencing connectivity issues.

“We can’t get to the gigahertz speeds that fiber has. You can’t put fiber out everywhere in the country,” said Cari Bennet, general counsel for the RWA. “The way the FCC licenses the spectrum is based on population. When [broadband] companies hit population benchmarks, they do not go out to the farms because they bought the licenses at auction and met the requirements. We hope these new proceedings will incentivize them. Up to now, everyone has left [farmers] behind.”

Gutowsky believes the most reliable, durable approach remains fiber – with townships facilitating the rollout.

“Why mess around with wireless technology?” he said. “You hire engineers to build our roads. Why don’t you do the same for internet?”

•••

The deadline for this year’s $1,000 Nancy Fike Scholarship is April 15. It’s presented each year to a graduating senior from a McHenry County high school who plans to study education, history or the social sciences. For information, visit www.gothistory.org.

• Kurt Begalka is administrator of the McHenry County Historical Society and Museum in Union. He can be reached at kurt@mchenrycountyhistory.org.

Published March 13, 2022, in the Northwest Herald

 

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