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Most Illinoisans have some internet access, but many pay a fortune for dismal speeds

Wisper Internet, based in Mascoutah, Illinois, installs their technology on towers, grain bin elevators, poles, or water towers to give internet access to rural homes. Their equipment is installed on the Mascoutah Water tower in Scheve Park.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Wisper Internet, based in Mascoutah, installs their technology on towers, grain bin elevators, poles, or water towers to give internet access to rural homes. Their equipment is installed on the Mascoutah Water tower in Scheve Park.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Victor May doesn’t have cable television in his house just outside Collinsville. It’s an extra cost he can’t afford — everything goes toward his more than $300 monthly phone and internet bill.

“All the money has to go to internet use,” May said, “or phones, I should say.”

His service amounts to three wireless hotspots, one each for him, his wife and 16-year-old daughter, on top of three cell phone lines. It’s still frustratingly slow when May tries to work from home for his trucking business or when his daughter does homework.

“It’s usually easier to hop in my truck and go to Starbucks.”

They tried satellite, but at $250 a month for even more dismal speeds, it wasn’t worth it. Neither was the cost of relocating a utility pole closer to his property off Lockmann Road, as was proposed by another provider he called for six years before it contacted him with yet another untenable solution.

“I’m just trying to get something, anything,” May said.

May is just one of countless Illinoisans who don’t lack total access to the internet. They just have bad, expensive internet.

Illinois will soon get at least $100 million from the federal government to provide internet to 600,000 residents who have no home access. But it’s not clear if the money will address the other massive connection problem people like May face.

Internet access issues, whether they’re about speed, reliability or affordability, cut across all classes. Low-income, middle-class and the wealthy are at the mercy of internet providers and what they want to charge and provide. For those in poverty or living in rural areas, it’s usually worse.

Yet they have no choice, said Crystal Calvin, a Belleville mother of three whose neighbors less than a half-mile away have reliable internet. Calvin pays $180 a month for two cell phone hotspots with limited data. When they run out of data, often within a few weeks of the billing period, that’s it. No more internet connection at home.

“The price that you have to pay for unreliable service and also the limitation to options is ridiculous,” said Calvin, who has considered adding a third hotspot to their monthly bill. “You’re forced to pay whatever price is set.”

Students and their families in Brooklyn, the historic Black community also known as Lovejoy, also used hotspots during the pandemic to connect to school, said Ronald Ferrell, the district’s former superintendent. The Lovejoy area still doesn’t have reliable broadband.

“It was hell. No wireless internet, the pandemic had hit, the internet was acting up out there. Man, it was rough,” Ferrell said. “It’s a shame the Lovejoys, the Venices, the Madisons still don’t have those services.”

Reliability and affordability aren’t reflected in the state’s numbers on connectivity. More than 99% of Illinoisans have access to minimum speeds set by the federal government, according to Kevin Poe, managing director of the metro-east branch of the nonprofit PCs for People. Only 10% of people lack access to speeds just above the federal minimum.

“The percentages look great, but how affordable is the internet and what kind of internet is it?” said Poe, whose statistics come from the Illinois Office of Broadband.

The office mostly gets its data from the internet providers, and the numbers don’t reflect cost or reliability, Poe said. Data based on resident responses tells a different story: 19% of households report not having any internet access at all, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity says 600,000 people don’t have home internet access.

Whether Illinois will spend its infrastructure money to help free people from slow, pricey internet will depend on how it defines “access.” Does it mean a community is completely offline? Will the state count a wireless internet provider that offers snail’s pace speeds for $65 a month in an impoverished community? Do residents have access to hotspots?

“Hopefully they’re not using hotspots as an example of connectivity,” Poe said. “You can flood a community with hotspots and yeah, it helps them, but it’s more of a bandaid.”

Illinois Department of Broadband Director Matt Schmit said the state is focused on helping Illinoisans gain access to speeds much faster than the federal minimum by investing in fiber.

“We’ve looked beyond that threshold in Illinois,” Schmit said. “We want to be investing in infrastructure that can meet all needs and realize it is a moving goal post because bandwidth needs change over time. Just think of how many devices you have connected in your home at any given time. It’s far greater than it was a few years ago, and so we have to anticipate what that bandwidth need of today and tomorrow.”

Illinois has already invested hundreds of millions in broadband under Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois plan. The governor said that work paved the way for the state to use federal dollars effectively.

“We are, let’s say, shovel-ready here in Illinois for making sure that we carry out the mandate that we have broadband for everybody,” Pritzker said at an event in Chicago Thursday night.

Much has yet to be determined about how the state will spend federal money to boost its existing broadband strategy. As the discussion of infrastructure spending ramps up, Illinoisans like Calvin continue to suffer slow speeds, few options and expensive service.

“They know these people have no choice,” she said.

What is broadband?

Broadband is an umbrella term for multiple types of high-speed internet. Some are faster and more reliable than others, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The most common types include DSL and cable, which use existing phone and cable television lines to deliver internet. Fiber-optic lines are much faster than DSL and cable, and provide service through transparent glass fibers. Only 13.4% of Illinoisans have access to “future proof” fiber technology.

Wireless broadband travels by radio signal from the provider’s equipment to a customer’s home. There’s also satellite broadband, which delivers internet by connecting to a satellite orbiting the earth. Wireless and satellite can be as fast as DSL and cable, but can also be affected by the weather and “line-of-sight” interference such as trees.

The federal government’s minimal acceptable speed is enough for one student doing remote learning, or one person on a telehealth call, or one person working from home, Schmit said.

“That is absolutely the bare minimum,” he said.

While that situation may have been more common prior to 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changed how families use the internet. It’s no longer a discretionary item, and is closer in necessity to water or heat, said U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois.

“It’s a utility. Stop thinking of it like people used to think of cable TV 50 years ago. I’m sorry, no, it’s a utility. It is just as important as water or sewer or anything else and we saw that during COVID,” Duckworth said.

Michael Needles, a father of eight and home-builder living outside of Collinsville, doesn’t have reliable access at his home. Throughout most of 2020 and early 2021, he and his wife Karolyn had to get all their kids online for school. Suddenly the federal standard wasn’t enough for a large family who all needed to video chat at the same time.

With no access to fiber-optic or wired internet service, they were paying roughly $400 a month during the height of the pandemic for a 3G hotspot and two satellites.

“That definitely did not work,” Needles said. “We went through several options and all of them throttle you down after so much data usage.”

Now they pay $250 for cell phone plans plus more than $100 for “unlimited” satellite internet that slows down after a week or so of use. On rainy days it hardly works at all. While the kids are back at school in-person, they almost always need reliable internet for homework.

“It’s amazing how crucial internet access is to a modern American family. It just really is,” Needles said. “Twenty years ago it wasn’t imperative to have it, and now it is.”

‘It’s ridiculous’

Illinoisans face frustrating and at times ridiculous dilemmas in trying to access the internet.

Needles said he built his family’s home on a three-acre plot off Lebanon Road with a promise from an internet company to provide wired broadband service.

After completing construction nearly three years ago, they made an appointment to connect internet to the house, but no one ever showed up, Needles said. When he inquired again, they told him they book appointments through a third-party service, and their new home was not eligible for service.

Kristi Nichols faced a similar situation when she and her husband moved to a semi-rural area outside New Baden. Frontier Communications, a Connecticut-based broadband provider, told Nichols they would have access. After they moved, Frontier changed their minds.

“When they came out here to install everything, they said you don’t get a good enough signal out here for the internet,” Nichols said.

A Frontier spokeswoman said the company has since addressed a “simple system issue” that indicated service was available at Nichols’ home when in fact it was not. She said the company regrets the inconvenience.

Yet another metro-east resident, Cort Hacker, lives near Lebanon with his three children and pays $300 for satellite television and an AT&T hotspot so he can work from home.

There’s a fiber-optic line that runs directly in front of his house, but he’s not allowed to access it. It’s for commercial use only, he said.

“I live three minutes from the high school. It’s crazy thinking we have those kind of problems,” Hacker said. “It’s 2021. How are we not there yet? It’s ridiculous.”

Others go to extreme lengths for reliable service. Nathan Stooke, CEO of Mascoutah-based internet provider Wisper, said one of his customers took out almost all the trees on his property just so he could access Wisper’s line-of-sight wireless broadband from a nearby tower.

They install a transmitter on a tall structure such as a grain silo or water tower. A dish on a customer’s home picks up the signal and transmits it to their home router, connecting them to the internet. Trees could block the signal.

“His brother had borrowed a (bull)dozer for building his house, and he just took the dozer and knocked them all over,” Stooke said, “and there was the beautiful tower there.”

Internet companies don’t have a great track record with keeping promises, but some Illinoisans are hopeful about another promise.

Needles paid $100 to get on a waiting list for Elon Musk’s promised Starlink, a network of low-orbit satellites that are expected to provide high-speed internet to those with few options. If Needles is ever able to sign up, it’ll be an additional $400 for them to send a satellite dish. He’s not sure how much it will cost per month.

“I’m hoping that improves things, but I haven’t heard any updates,” Needles said.

That technology might help someone like Tom Kirkley, a design engineer who lives in rural St. Clair County. His only option for connecting to work from what he calls “no man’s land” in a valley is sluggish satellite broadband for $100 a month.

“It’s better than nothing.”

Should the Internet be a utility?

Nichols, whose husband works from home as an insurance broker, now pays about $300 per month for satellite television and an AT&T cell phone plan plus a hotspot with unlimited data.

It’s her only affordable option.

Despite the cost, the internet is hardly useful. It freezes up during video calls, and Nichols and her husband can’t use it simultaneously. They thought about signing up for a satellite broadband service, but those plans come with data caps they would run through in no time.

They continue to pay because they have no choice.

“They just gouge you,” Nichols said. “We’re lucky enough to be able to afford this. There are a lot of people who can’t.”

There’s no incentive for companies to provide better service, said Calvin, the Belleville mother.

“They really need to treat it like a utility rather than all these tight-knit companies owning those lines, owing those services,” Calvin said.

While utilities like water, sewer and electric often only have one provider in a community, they’re heavily regulated by the government. Many said they’d like to see the internet similarly regulated. Duckworth said she agrees.

“Water companies are not allowed to slow down your water pressure unless you pay more. If you pay for your water bill, everyone gets the same water pressure in the town. So, the utility companies can’t slow down your electricity or your water but that’s what cable companies want to do.”

Legislation to prevent internet providers from slowing down speeds faced Republican opposition in Congress and failed. But some communities took it upon themselves to provide their own services.

Highland, in the metro-east, owns and operates its own fiber-optic internet service for the city’s roughly 10,000 residents.

For internet speeds more than twice as fast as the federal minimum standard and a basic cable television bundle, they charge $54 a month. They used $13 million in government bonds to build the network, and service fees go toward paying off debt and expanding service.

For speeds that would easily accommodate Needles’ eight children all doing homework online and streaming video at the same time, Highland charges $95 a month. A plan that would work for a retired couple who mainly do some online shopping or web browsing costs $25 a month.

It’s not a utility because residents opt-in to the service and it’s not considered required infrastructure, said Highland Communication Services Director Angela Imming. But is is an alternative.

“People associate lack of internet access with rural areas, and that’s just not the case. The big box companies have a grip on urban areas as well,” Imming said.

The internet would be a utility when “the federal government says it doesn’t matter where you live, we’re still going to make sure you can have drinking water, 9-1-1 or internet connectivity,” Imming added.

“That would be a utility.”

Highland is only able to offer its internet service to people within city limits. Once it finishes extending service to all residents — Imming hopes that will happen next year — it can begin expanding to people in unincorporated areas.

The city’s costs are relatively low compared to legacy internet companies, which is why they can provide cheap service to residents. They’re not paying off the cost of installing copper phone wires decades ago.

“To get fiber only two mile linear radius is financially impossible,” Imming said. “To have a corporation decide they’re going to do this is just not feasible.”

Stooke, the Wisper CEO, said Illinoisans should be skeptical of turning internet into a utility.

“I would love to bill you for usage. You pay for usage of water. You pay for usage of electricity. By all means, let me bill you for what you use on the internet, “Stooke said. “But nobody understands what they use on the internet.”

With more federal dollars coming in for broadband infrastructure, Stooke believes the country might be moving toward regulating the internet like a utility. The need for competition among internet providers would still exist, he said.

“We don’t have water competition. We don’t have power competition,” Stooke said. “If the phone companies and the cable companies had done what they were supposed to do, there’d be no reason for Wisper. They would’ve provided service everywhere. There’s a business reason why they didn’t and that business reason will still be there even if we’re treated like a utility.”

Yet more municipalities are becoming interested in developing their own high-speed internet service. Imming says she has heard from leaders in Jacksonville, Greenville and other Illinois towns for guidance.

“I expect its going to start coming even more furiously now,” she said.

How will Illinois use broadband infrastructure money?

Illinois is expected to get at least $100 million from the infrastructure deal President Joe Biden signed in November. The money will be used to encourage private companies to expand their networks and will also support the state’s existing efforts.

There are two parts to the broadband money, Duckworth said. The first will help people who don’t have any access and those who can’t afford it. The two will overlap.

“Sometimes you have communities that don’t have any access at any price. We’ve got to get those communities hooked up,” Duckworth said. “Then there’s the affordability piece. It’s not affordable if it’s $400 a month.”

The infrastructure money would support programs like PCs for People. Using pandemic relief and state money, the organization provides low-cost computers and internet hotspots for $15 a month. They also help people access the federal government’s $50 per month stipend for connection.

“That’s where we need it, to keep doing what the original pandemic money started,” Poe said. “That’s what I hope to keep doing, bridging the gap.”

Connecting communities to reliable internet will also be key. Needles said he would like to see the infrastructure money pay for more wired, reliable access from fiber-optic lines.

But that’s costly, about $80,000 per mile. Wireless internet is cheaper and quicker to install, said Stooke, the Wisper CEO. They use fixed wireless broadband technology to provide internet — it costs 20% of fiber-optic installation, according to Stooke.

Using $220 million from the federal Connect America Fund, Wisper has grown its network to include 68 new towers in four states, including Illinois. They plan to use money from the infrastructure deal to continue their expansion, Stooke said, including the rollout of new technology that will allow Wisper’s internet signal to pierce through tree cover.

Yet a relatively small number of Illinoisans have nothing. The infrastructure money is expected to help them get online with something and help those who can’t afford it pay for service, but there’s no guarantee of reliability.

The Office of Broadband called the infrastructure money “a historic level of funding to improve the infrastructure that keeps our communities connected.” The state has already laid out its plans for developing broadband under Gov. J.B. Pritzker and has started implementing it through the Connect Illinois program.

The office partnered with other groups, including the University of Illinois Extension, to help communities prepare to use federal infrastructure money for internet improvements. The Leadership Council Southwestern Illinois took part in the Illinois Connected Communities program.

The state set aside $420 million for broadband in Pritzker’s Rebuild Illinois infrastructure spending package. In southernmost Illinois, grant money was awarded to build out wireless and fiber internet in Saline, Williamson, Johnson, Union and other counties. In the metro-east, a project will provide broadband service to an unserved area south of Troy on Equus Lane.

A third round of Connect Illinois will make $350 million available to Illinois communities soon for achieving “universal access,” Pritzker said.

Imming says the state will have to make avenues to help underserved communities apply for and win money from the federal pot.

“There are some communities that are really have a hard time getting their trash picked up, getting good clean drinking water, fixing roads,” Imming said. “They have so many other things they’re worried about that this doesn’t even enter their minds. When you get to the point of, ‘Hey, we need better options and access,’ it’s too late.”

Imming said she also hopes the state will consult with local leaders and give them power over spending.

“When you give money to the government to decide, it goes right back to the lobbyists,” Imming said. “Local government is actually at the end of making sure people have high-speed internet.”

Schmit, the director of Illinois’ broadband office, said they want to work with communities.

“We really want the community to drive what their broadband vision is, be part of the conversation,” Schmit said.

As state leaders begin deciding how to use the millions coming to Illinois, Victor May will continue paying his more than $300 monthly bill. He has considered moving just to get affordable, fast internet, and realizes now he shouldn’t have assumed proximity to nearby internet lines means access.

“I thought it was everywhere,” he said.

Kelsey Landis is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Kelsey Landis is an Illinois state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.