For Broadband In Northern Illinois, The Future Is Now

Jun 3, 2013

Credit DATA

A push to bring high speed internet access to smaller communities and rural areas was a key part of President Obama’s 2009 stimulus package.  One of the first projects to gain funding in Illinois was the DeKalb Advancement of Technology Authority, or DATA.  It was followed soon after by iFiber, a project to bring broadband to counties in north central and northwest Illinois.  Both are now moving from the construction phase to implementation.

When most of us talk about high-speed, or broadband, internet access for our home or business, we think in terms of megabits of data.  OK for viewing a website, or watching YouTube, but for really data-intensive use, like streaming a high definition movie, video conferencing, or 3-D medical imaging, way too slow.  Now imagine you could access the internet at speeds a thousand times faster.  With a gigabit connection, all sorts of things become not only possible, but practical as well.  That’s the promise of the fiber optic networks that are being built in northern Illinois and across the country.  

Credit NIU

John Lewis is Director of the Regional Development Institute at Northern Illinois University. He’s overseen the development of DATA and iFiber, as well as another NIU-led broadband project, the Illinois Rural HealthNet, which links healthcare providers across the state.  Lewis says a key to the success of these projects is the public-private partnership that developed them.  That allowed the networks to be built and made available at a lower cost.  Lewis says DATA and iFiber face two challenges going forward:  first, getting the 500 community anchor institutions that will be part of the network- schools, municipal governments and the like-hooked up; second, finding ways to extend that network to the broader community.

“How do we make this available to businesses? How do we make it available to get fiber to the home, to small communities or 4G networks out to the rural regions, and improving the quality of life that they have?”

Credit NIU

Matt Parks is Director of Network and Communications Services at NIU.  He says getting the networks up and running has taken a real effort by all concerned.  But, he says, in some ways the work is just beginning.

“There’s a lot of learning that needs to happen as we go forward, with schools, with libraries, with municipalities. Having the business come to the table and help frame the story of how they use it.”

Scot Eberle is President of FiberUtilities Group,  a firm that works with businesses on ways to access and use the Internet.  He says moving from a situation in which scarcity of capacity has been the norm to one of abundance is both an opportunity and a challenge for everyone.

“It has a tremendous enabling power to change how people live, how people do business. Now what does the business community, what does the university, what does the group do together, to change how they operate their businesses, their communities, and how can we bring more value to the community as a whole by utilizing these assets?”   

John Lewis (standing) with (l to r) Matt Parks, Clayton Black and Scot Eberle, take part in a panel discussion of the new networks' potential.
Credit Guy Stephens / WNIJ

Clayton Black is a Regional E-Team leader for Broadband Illinois, a non-profit that works to promote and coordinate efforts to bring broadband access to all parts of the state.  Black says the effect of all these networks is transformative. 

“Broadband is really the great equalizer. It’s the thing that gets small businesses up to where the big businesses are. It’s enabling that local connection that lets you really do something in those small communities that you previously had to go to a big town to do.”  

Black says similar projects are happening all over the state. Broadband Illinois has detailed information about each, including maps and regular updates on their progress, on its website.

Everyone agrees that with DATA and iFiber, DeKalb County and the entire northern Illinois region are in an enviable position.  Matt Parks says it’s also a necessary one.

“Gigabit is here. Right, I mean the world we live in today, you get into the metropolitan areas, gigabit is where it’s at.”

In other words, if you’re not ahead, you’re behind.  And with these networks, no one here is about to let that happen.