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Government, Politics & Issues

Fairmont City’s town’s fight for internet will soon pay off. They have feedback for Pritzker

030422_DH_Katie Heaton Fairmont City wifi.jpg
Derik Holtmann
/
Belleville News-Democrat
Katie Heaton, an internet connectivity advocate and assistant director of the library district that serves Fairmont City, and Fairmont City Mayor Michael Suarez worked together to help bring affordable and reliable internet to the city. They are hoping residents will soon have more options this spring.

Fairmont City has struggled, hoped and pleaded for reliable, affordable internet for more than a decade. As soon as April, they’ll finally have an option.

“It’s just going to change the world down here,” said Katie Heaton, an internet connectivity advocate and assistant director of the library district that serves the village. “It’s going to bring business, allow businesses to be more competitive, children will want to grow up and stay here.”

Fairmont City’s efforts have also lifted up nearby Washington Park. The two towns worked together to convince internet provider Charter Communications to build out access to its Spectrum-brand services.

But how the villages, where poverty rates are two-to-four-times the Illinois average, secured internet access tells another story — about the difficulties faced in securing state grants, and reliance on the good graces of private internet providers to extend service.

It couldn’t come soon enough as society settles into a routine where high-speed internet at home is a necessity on the order of heat and water.

When the pandemic hit and schools went remote, entire segments of the student population were absent in both Fairmont City, where nearly 80% of the population is Hispanic or Latino, and Washington Park, where 78% of the population is Black. Parents looking for work or working from home shared precious cellular data with their children. There often wasn’t enough internet to go around, or any connectivity at all.

“It was awful, awful,” said Washington Park Mayor Leonard Moore, who was elected last April “There were one or two options, and I wouldn’t call them options because it’s very bad internet service.”

Residents have seen the Spectrum crews out working recently, and they’ve been asking Moore if the rumors are true about Washington Park getting cable internet.

“For once they’re going to have a choice,” Moore said.

Fairmont City Mayor Michael Suarez said he’s still in disbelief. The 40-year-old father of two sons was born and raised in the village, where his first memory of internet was dial-up. As he watched other towns around them get faster and faster internet, Fairmont City’s never got any better.

“You know it’s coming but it still doesn’t feel real because honestly, it felt like it was never going to happen. We were ready for that door to get shut in our face or the excuse,” Suarez said. “It took an attitude of not taking ‘no’ for an answer and an attitude of not giving up.”

Trouble with state grants

While local officials played a major role in bringing internet to Fairmont City, they were still at the mercy of private providers.

Fairmont City thought a state grant would help attract a provider to the village, where the median household income is just over $39,100. That number might not appeal to a businesses looking to pay off their investments.

But to qualify for a grant through the Connect Illinois program, Fairmont City needed a provider who was also a partner. Even with the possibility of thousands of dollars in free state money, Charter wouldn’t bite.

“The deadline was coming and we still didn’t have a partner,” Suarez said. “I thought we had missed the boat.”

Katie Heaton, who runs the Fairmont City library, points to the telephone pole and lines across the street from the library. She said that was how far away the internet line was for the years she requested faster internet from different service providers.
Eric Schmid
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Katie Heaton, who runs the Fairmont City library, points to the telephone pole and lines across the street from the library. She said that was how far away the internet line was for the years she requested faster internet from different service providers.

They did miss it, but other communities won awards. Roughly $200,000 from the second round of Connect Illinois money went to newer subdivisions in Madison and St. Clair counties: Bella Vista, Briars and Equus Lane. In Bella Vista and the Briars subdivisions, homes can go for close to or more than $500,000, according to property records.

Heaton said she believes those types of areas get state grants because their residents can afford to pay hundreds of dollars for premium services every month. The Connect Illinois program started under Gov. J.B. Pritzker and has allocated $73 million in grant awards so far.

In the next round, $350 million will be awarded, but Heaton says that money will have to convince providers to cooperate if the state wants communities like Fairmont City to be included.

“I’m sure Gov. Pritzker didn’t think the internet providers would be causing the digital divide, but they are,” Heaton said. “It doesn’t matter if the state is offering millions of dollars if the internet providers say no.”

A Spectrum spokesman confirmed construction was underway as of early March in the two villages and that services will be available “later this spring,” but said they did not refuse public grants. Instead, the Fairmont City project “is a 100% private investment,” spokesman Wes Shirley said.

Though high-end Metro East subdivisions won grants, so too have rural and low-income communities. A project in the first round of grants connected almost 800 households and 95 businesses in a group of tiny agricultural Calhoun County towns, according to the state’s interactive broadband map.

In Hardin, one of the larger towns, the median household income is just under $31,000. The project in partnership with the Illinois Electric Cooperative will help provide access to e-learning, health care and essential online agricultural tools.

The state uses a detailed 200-page grant application that asks about how many people and businesses would benefit, and takes into consideration existing internet options, said Illinois Office of Broadband director Matt Schmit. The state’s broadband map incorporates this information using federal communications data, and serves as the primary guide to distributing the state’s resources, Schmit said.

The map has a flaw, Heaton said. It shows some places as having reliable internet service when that’s only partially true. The map shows parts of Fairmont City are connected, but that might only apply to businesses, not residents.

“The digital divide was completely real in Fairmont City, and we had to prove to other people that this was actually happening,” Heaton said.

Suarez said he hopes Illinois will learn from the village’s experience and use it to improve its programs as federal infrastructure money comes to Illinois.

“The program is young and it’s only going to get better,” he said.

A child plays a computer game in the Fairmont City library on Nov. 1. The library is one of the only places in the small Metro East village that has reliable internet speeds.
Eric Schmid
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A child plays a computer game in the Fairmont City library on Nov. 1, 2021. The library is one of the only places in the small Metro East village that has reliable internet speeds.

‘The first inning’ 

Though thousands of similar Illinois communities still need help with broadband projects, Schmit said he wants local governments to know, “You are not stuck with your existing providers.”

“We’re in the first inning here,” Schmit said.

There’s more money to come, namely in at least $100 million of federal infrastructure money specifically for broadband in Illinois. The state will be able to use existing programming to distribute that money. By the time it comes, likely within the next few years, the programs will be even more effective, Schmit said.

“At the point where all this federal funding is coming, we know exactly what we’re doing,” Schmit said.

Now is the time to reach out to the state broadband office, he said, like Fairmont City did. If a community is met with resistance from a provider, or doesn’t know where to start, the office has a number of programs to help.

One program, the Illinois Connected Communities, awarded free broadband consultation and $15,000 to Fairmont City for internet development. They plan to use the money to offer wireless internet in the village’s parks.

Persistent local advocates such as those in Fairmont City and Washington Park are key, Schmit said.

“I’ve been working in this space for over a decade. It all began with helping local communities have a stronger voice,” Schmit said. “That local organizing is so critical to this. We just don’t want to put all the burden on everyday Illinoisans. We want to support them as best we can. We also want to help our local governments to take steps forward. And all it really takes is one champion.”

‘A long plight’

Existing internet options in Fairmont City and Washington Park are slow and expensive, Heaton said. Spectrum’s options will bring faster speeds at a lower cost.

A basic internet plan with speeds fast enough to accommodate a family’s internet needs will cost about $50 per month for the first year and $75 after that, the company spokesman said. Compared to other slower options, it’s a good price, Heaton said. Illinois also subsidizes a program to lower internet costs to as little as $15 a month.

“It has been a long plight for the village of Fairmont City,” said Heaton.

The library’s role started around 2008 when it moved into its current building off Collinsville Road. Half of the residents there don’t have a computer at home, Heaton said, and mainly access the internet through a smartphone.

It began with getting access to the library. Heaton said she could see a utility pole outside a window in the library with a high-speed internet line, but Charter told them they couldn’t connect to it.

After a bank opened a branch in the library in 2015, Charter was willing to extend service, St. Louis Public Radio reported last fall, when it seemed unclear if the rest of the village would get access.

Having reliable internet at the library was a victory for the community. At least there was one public space they could go to apply for jobs, do school work and learn English. But in early 2020, when COVID-19 closed the library for in-person visits temporarily, that push for internet became far more urgent.

Pleas to Charter were unsuccessful, Heaton said. Finally last summer, she met with Schmit and “laid out our plight.” It wasn’t long before she heard from Charter.

“I got a lovely little phone call from Spectrum Charter saying they were ready to move forward with our community. We were like, ‘Great!’”

Suarez says there will still be room for faster internet in Fairmont City. Residents will have access to a shared line, an affordable option for internet providers building infrastructure but not quite the gold-standard of dedicated fiber optic cable. But Fairmont City will take it.

“Anyone you talk to is extremely excited and happy,” Suarez said. “We’re hoping this leads us into the right direction.”

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

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