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Illinois Ag Director Wants Money For Rural Broadband

Acting Illinois Department of Agriculture Secretary John Sullivan said one of this top priorities is expanding internet access in rural areas of the state. Sullivan served in the legislature for 14 years before stepping down in 2017.

Slow internet service can slow a business down, adding up to lost time and money. And often the problem is worse in rural areas.

That’s one reason John Sullivan, acting director of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, said improving internet access is a top priority for him.

“If there isn’t adequate access to high-speed internet, it really drags and holds back the possibility for jobs and opportunities in those areas,” he said.

Sullivan, a 14-year veteran of the state legislature, is new to the post. Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed him in December, and he’s awaiting confirmation from the Illinois Senate.

He didn’t offer many details on what a broadband expansion could look like, but said he will push for money in a promised capital plan this spring.

Illinois Newsroom has covered the need for faster internet service in small towns in Illinois, and talked with Sullivan about what his department can do.

The ask could be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Sullivan said. And his department’s role is to make the case for funding for expanding high-speed internet access.

“We can provide to [the governor and legislature] the support that is needed and the evidence that there is a tremendous need for broadband and especially in the rural parts of the state,” he said.

There is the possibility of working with the federal government as well. The latest farm bill included funding for loans and grants for broadband projects, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has set aside another $600 million for its Re-Connect program.

Sullivan said he’s met with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and they’re interested in working with the state.

Illinois farmers have shown support for expanding internet access. In an Illinois Farm Bureau survey last year, two-thirds of respondents reported the quality of their internet service “negatively impacted” their farming business. The survey had a small sample size, 235 respondents. But more than 70 percent encouraged the bureau to make high-speed internet a priority.

Sullivan said he’s had firsthand experience battling a slow connection. His family runs an auction business, and he said they had trouble expanding their business.

“A lot of auctions are online anymore. And certainly, you need the bandwidth to handle an internet bidding program,” he said. “And so when our business was looking at expanding, we really had poor access to the internet.”

Copyright 2019 NPR Illinois. To see more, visit NPR Illinois.
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