It's 2021, and this Metro East community still doesn't have reliable internet
FAIRMONT CITY — Most people in the St. Louis region don’t have to think twice about connecting their homes to the internet, but that’s not the case in one Metro East community.
Fairmont City residents have asked internet service providers for years to get connected to reliable broadband, only to be told that service isn’t available in their community of 2,300.
“For whatever reason it’s always been a struggle for our community to have connectivity,” said Mayor Michael Suarez, “then to have connectivity that works. I just don’t feel in 2021 I should be having to have this conversation.”
Internet connectivity is as essential as electricity and water services, a point the pandemic drove home, he said. Suarez added the access issues especially frustrate him because he doesn’t have good answers for his constituents.
“It’s baffling,” he said.
In June, Fairmont City signed a franchise agreement with Spectrum, which would provide the community with the same kinds of services residents in other Metro East communities can get. Suarez said the company had indicated it would begin work in the community this fall, but in an email to St. Louis Public Radio, Spectrum said it expected construction and connections would start in spring 2022.
“That’s more than I’ve gotten or any of my staff has gotten like a timeframe,” Suarez said.
The company did not comment further on the situation in Fairmont City.
One of the big reasons that service providers haven’t yet come to Fairmont City boils down to economics. Internet service providers don’t want to establish programs in areas that won’t make them enough money, said Katie Heaton, assistant director of the Mississippi Valley Library District, which runs the Fairmont City library.
“There were a lot of times where I had to turn off my public use computers to be able to have a program in the library that needed to utilize the internet,” she said. “It was absolutely crazy how thirsty we were for more internet services.”
Today, the library is one of the only places in Fairmont City with fast and reliable internet, Heaton said. And that only happened after a bank opened a branch in part of the library in 2015, she said.
“Even though I had been asking for seven or eight years and being told as a library I can't have this service, the bank was able to get the no turned into a yes,” she said. “It was days. I was amazed.”
The new connection was nearly 10 times faster than what Heaton said she had before.
“It was like an awakening,” she said. “Some of the kids hadn’t been exposed to that kind of technology, and didn’t understand the speed that the internet was actually running in other communities.”
Members of the community then assumed faster and more reliable internet would spread to the rest of the area because the library was now connected, Heaton said.
“They were all told it’s not available even though they knew the library had it,” she said. “They couldn't understand why it was in their community and yet it was still a ‘no’ for them.”
In the nearly seven years since Fairmont City’s library got faster and more reliable internet, Heaton, Suarez and others have tried many different ways to get the rest of the community connected.
Fairmont City won a $25,000 State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant a year ago to provide free Wi-Fi hotspots to local residents.
“It’s not going to solve the problem entirely,” said Tanya Interian, a State Farm agent and co-chair of the Latino Roundtable of Southwestern Illinois. “It will temporarily solve the problem, but with the noise that it made, I think the result is the community will get that permanent connectivity very soon.”
Fairmont City was also included in the second round of Illinois Connected Communities, which was part of the $420 million the Illinois General Assembly directed to broadband infrastructure in 2019, said Matt Schmit, director of the Illinois Office of Broadband.
“That work is just getting underway this fall with a focus on access, adoption and utilization,” he said. “The program is here to help address those ‘market failures,’ where the job just isn't getting done on its own.”
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.