In a part of the Prairie State referred to as “Little Egypt,” a small county in southeastern Illinois recently received a big infusion of federal funds to expand its broadband network into neighboring rural counties.
In October of 2020, the USDA announced that the Hamilton County Telephone Cooperative was awarded a $20 million ReConnect grant and a $20 million ReConnect loan to bring broadband to over 19,000 residents, 462 businesses, 347 farms, 16 educational facilities, three post offices and four fire stations in Saline, Williamson, Franklin and White counties.
The $40 million in total Hamilton County received was a portion of the $600 million Congress appropriated to the USDA in 2018 to expand broadband infrastructure and services in rural America. In April of 2020, the USDA announced it had received 172 applications worth $1.57 billion in Round Two ReConnect requests.
The funds awarded to Hamilton County in the fall came on top of the $3.4 million from the state-wide Connect Illinois program and ReConnect funds the co-op received in February of 2020 to build out its Fiber-To-The-Premises (FTTP) network to connect more than 600 homes in the rural county with a population just over 8,000 residents.
Decades of Service
Hamilton County Telephone Cooperative was first created in 1953 to provide telephone service to county residents. In 1992, the co-op launched Hamilton County Communications, Inc. to provide Internet service and business telephone system sales and support. In 2011, the network rolled out its FTTP network within the county and, as demand for Internet services increased outside of Hamilton County, in 2014 the co-op created a subsidiary known as Futiva (The Future of Internet, Video and Access) to provide FTTP services outside the county.
“Really it’s helping those folks that no other business would come to, to bring them high-speed Internet [access],” Co-Op general manager Kevin Pyle told WSIL-TV when the February grant was announced.
“I would venture to say that this is just a drop in the bucket. This is needed everywhere,” Pyle went on to say. “I think our country is at least ten years behind on getting this technology out, and we have a lot of work (still) to do.”
When the build-out is complete the co-op is expected to serve just under 8,000 premises in five neighboring counties - areas that qualified as “underserved” with at least 90% lacking access to Internet service with speeds of a paltry 10/1 Megabits per second (Mbps).
By comparison, Futiva offers speeds of up to a Gigabit per second (Gbps) download and 250 Mbps upload for $100 a month. The introductory tier of 50/5 Mbps is priced at $60 a month.
With the fiber network being expanded in Hamilton and surrounding counties, Pyle said the cooperative was relying on its 50 years of experience in delivering communication services to get the job done.
“We’re able to do what they did in the '50s about connecting folks,” he told The Southern Illinoisan.
Among those most looking forward to the fiber build out are farmers in southern Illinois.
“This is truly going to be very, very well received by agriculture,” Rich Guebert, President of the Illinois Farm Bureau said during the online funding announcement, noting that farming is becoming more reliant on Internet-connected technology.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, “many of the latest yield maximizing farming techniques require broadband connections for data collection and analysis performed both on the farm and in remote data centers.”
However, the Farm Bureau notes, 29% of U.S. farms have no access to the Internet, all the more significant considering that “farmers and ranchers rely on broadband access to manage and operate successful businesses, the same as small businesses do in urban and suburban America. Access to broadband is essential for farmers and ranchers to follow commodity markets, communicate with their customers, gain access to new markets around the world and, increasingly, for regulatory compliance.” This is especially true as farms come to rely more and more on connected devices, but Internet access nevertheless brings both cost savings and increased productivity across a range of crops for farmers all across the country.
Yara N-Sensor image by User bdk via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0