McHenry County nonprofit awarded state grant to gauge local broadband opportunities

So far, group’s president thinks forming cooperative could be best path forward

Discussions about how to give more McHenry County homes and businesses access to a high-speed internet service on a new broadband network are about to ramp up.

The nonprofit Internet Freedom for McHenry County, along with a handful of other community organizations across Illinois, was awarded a grant from the state late last month that includes $15,000 and access to consultants and resources that could help gauge the demand and potential paths forward for starting another broadband option in the area.

David Gutowsky, president of the local nonprofit, said his vision involves beginning a cooperative to govern a new network offering high speeds, such as gigabyte upload and download rates. Customers of the service would be its owners and play a role in steering the body that would run it, Gutowsky said.

The cooperative model might offer some advantages for the area, since municipally owned services may not be as easily able or open to spanning city and village limits or serving unincorporated pockets of the county.

But the configuration that eventually could be used to establish and operate a new network has yet to be finalized, and further exploration of possible broadband expansions is set to take place over the coming months. Gutkowsky’s group is starting talks with a number of municipal governments, business organizations and school districts across the county about ideas for growing broadband and how the grant could help.

“What this grant means is we can start moving toward modernizing the infrastructure in this county,” Gutowsky said.

Starting a community-owned network has become necessary for the public to consider investing in itself because the existing web service providers in the area so far have either not built out their local networks to offer high speeds in the area at affordable rates for some residents or have unreliable connections.

With more funding and the political will of local residents and businesses, it may be possible to install new broadband infrastructure or extend cable lines from the backbone of the fiber loop connecting McHenry County College and some other public facilities installed in 2016, Gutowsky said.

He is confident a community-owned network’s speeds and monthly rates for users would be competitive, if not superior, compared with those offered by the area’s existing internet service providers.

Comcast, for instance, offers download speeds of up to 1,200 megabits, more than a gig, per second, for $106 a month in the Wonder Lake area, which is where Internet Freedom for McHenry County member Mike Tauler lives. An even faster, 2-gig download speed is available from the company for almost $300 a month.

“We have some money to move forward and get this really rocking and rolling, to start the process of getting the idea out there to the public and getting support from local government agencies,” Tauler said. “It could be its own organization – that way it’s not at the whim of any particular political machine.”

But so far, shovels are a way off from hitting the dirt to help lay any cooperative or community-owned cable up to homes.

The nonprofit’s grant is meant to spur additional conversation among community leaders, residents and business owners about the best way to move the area toward being shovel-ready if a community-owned broadband network proves desirable and feasible.

When local roads are being improved in the near future, however, Tauler said he hopes policies can be put in place to require channels that could house fiber in the future to get built into the right-of-way simultaneously with the roadwork, so less digging has to take place when more broadband is ready to be laid in the county.

Officials in Spring Grove, Ringwood and Hebron have unsuccessfully sought an alternative to Mediacom’s high-speed service, which is fast when it works but has been unreliable lately because there is only one long service line into the area. This means the entire network in the area goes down if it experiences a cut or another issue.

This round of grants, the second in the Illinois Connected Communities program, is meant to have participating communities – including Waukegan, a North Chicago school district and a Peoria-area organization, among others – start on a yearlong program to help them complete a strategic plan for adding broadband.

“My plan to deliver broadband infrastructure to every corner of Illinois by 2024 requires an ambitious, all-hands-on-deck approach, and the Illinois Connected Communities program is a vital asset in closing the digital equity gap,” Gov. JB Pritzker said in a news release. “I’m proud to have another eight organizations and institutions join our growing team. 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.”

Gutowsky said it is exciting to have a McHenry County group selected to participate in the planning grant program as the White House is pushing for a spending package that could include more than $65 billion for expanding broadband internet service, with ambitions to reach everyone in the nation.

Additionally, Pritzker has sought to implement $420 million in broadband spending in the state to grow access, according to the release.

“Access to reliable high-speed internet is a critical tool for our communities to compete in a 21st century economy,” said Sylvia Garcia, director of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “Under Gov. Pritzker’s leadership, DCEO and the Illinois Office of Broadband are proud to provide a second round of funding for this unique program that supports transformative community-driven planning to grow local broadband implementation.”

Sam Lounsberry

Sam Lounsberry covers local government, business, K-12 education and all other aspects of life in McHenry County, in particular in the communities of Woodstock, McHenry, Richmond, Spring Grove, Wonder Lake and Johnsburg.