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Government, Politics & Issues

Years of struggle brought fiber internet to Fairmont City. How will other small towns fare?

A child plays a computer game in the Fairmont City library on Nov. 1, 2021. The library was one of the only places in the small Metro East village that had reliable internet speeds until fiber from Charter Spectrum went online last week.
Eric Schmid
/
St. Louis Public Radio
A child plays a computer game in the Fairmont City library on Nov. 1, 2021. The library was one of the only places in the small Metro East village that had reliable internet speeds until fiber from Charter Spectrum went online last week.

When LeeAnn Herrera of Charter Communications saw a call coming in from Fairmont City Mayor Michael Suarez, she knew he wanted to know when the company would start providing internet to his southwestern Illinois village.

“We had times where I would see his name pop up on my caller ID and I would be like, ‘Oh no, I don’t have any updates,’” Herrera said.

After more than six years of “not taking no for an answer,” the village has fiber internet available, Suarez said at a news conference Monday making the announcement official. Fairmont City’s efforts also paid off for nearby Washington Park, whose fiber internet service went online Friday. Charter will provide service to 1,700 residents and businesses in the two communities.

“It’s still unreal. We always felt that this was coming but then you had them days and months or years when it was just like, why? It’s not going to happen, so why?” Suarez said. “It should be easier.”

It was far from easy. Bringing fast, reliable internet to all of Fairmont City took Suarez, village librarian Katie Heaton, state lawmakers, state broadband officials and now a U.S. Senator working together.

Mascoutah-based internet provider Wisper offers service in Fairmont City and recently upgraded its wireless infrastructure. While the service works well for some residents who have a line of sight to Wisper’s towers, it isn’t a good solution for everyone in Fairmont City, Heaton said.

While Fairmont City leaders celebrated their success, their years of struggle left them wondering if it will be just as hard for other small towns in southern Illinois to get fiber internet.

There will soon be at least $100 million in federal infrastructure money coming to Illinois for broadband development in places like Fairmont City and Washington Park, where poverty rates are two- to four-times the Illinois average.

But if towns don’t have an internet provider to partner with, money from the government could prove pointless. That was the case in Fairmont City.

Village leaders thought state money through the Connect Illinois broadband program would be their answer to getting Charter to provide service. To qualify for the grant, Fairmont City needed an internet provider to partner with. Charter wouldn’t bite.

Herrera said the company was already exploring extending service before the state money was available. Charter paid for new infrastructure using its own money.

Heaton believes requiring an internet company to partner with communities would have solved the problem Fairmont City faced sooner.

But the state can’t regulate internet companies like it does utilities, said state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea. He has represented the Fairmont City area for roughly the past decade and helped village leaders connect with Charter.

“We tried to make the case for them that this is important. If it’s good for their business, great, but I think it’s better for them to make sure that they help out communities such as Fairmont City and Washington Park,” Hoffman said.

While elected officials can play a part, it’s ultimately up to providers whether to invest or partner with communities to take advantage of state money.

“As a company, it just had to make sense for us,” Herrera said.

Herrera said Charter is committed to extending broadband to underserved communities. The process took so long in Fairmont City because Charter had to buy up existing internet infrastructure and completely rebuild the system. They started construction last year.

“We actually had to string fiber to connect to our system that we have nearby and make sure we could tie it all together,” Herrera said. “We’re really proud to be here. We’re really proud of all the work that we’ve done.”

While corporate goodwill played a role, Charter’s choice was a business decision. Rob Burton, area vice president of field operations, said Charter has an “appetite to build.”

“There are other towns and communities like this and our goal is to serve as many customers as we possibly can, obviously from a business perspective,” Burton said, “but we take a ton of pride in being good corporate citizens.”

Fairmont City will benefit from state money in other ways. 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.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, visited the Fairmont City library in mid-May to discuss internet access with local leaders. She said elected officials have the power to offer incentives to internet companies to provide service, especially as federal dollars become available.

“They’re going to get a lot of money, right?” Duckworth said. “They stand to make a lot of money because of this initiative. But they don’t want to come here because they make more money elsewhere. So, this is where coming here is really important to me.”

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, right, discusses broadband internet with Fairmont City Mayor Michael Suarez, front, and librarian Katie Heaton at the village library on May 13 as a Duckworth staffer looks on.
Kelsey Landis
/
Belleville News-Democrat
U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, right, discusses broadband internet with Fairmont City Mayor Michael Suarez, front, and librarian Katie Heaton at the village library on May 13 as a Duckworth staffer looks on.

Suarez says other small communities seeking fiber internet should be ready for a long haul.

“It’s a matter of finding others, working as teams to finally get that answer as a ‘yes,’” the mayor said.

Following Fairmont City’s playbook could prove successful for other towns, Herrera said.

“It all started with those initial phone calls and conversations,” Herrera said. “Start having those conversations with your economic development groups, your state representatives, your state senators. Reach out to them and let them know you feel like you are lacking services.”

Suarez said it shouldn’t be that hard. He wishes internet were treated like a utility statewide.

“When you turn your faucet on, you’re getting water. It should be the same thing. When you’re getting on your laptop, you should just have internet,” Suarez said. “It’s needed. It’s the way we live.”

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

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