For most people, the Internet is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity.

The Internet is necessary for many to advance professionally, to connect with friends and family and to advance an education. It's a stepping stone for economic success. But what if Internet access is too expensive or not available in rural areas? 

While network providers such as Frontier Communications or Mediacom have worked to reach deeper into rural areas in Southern Illinois, there are some geographic and economic barriers to expanding broadband in places that are hilly, forested and remote. 

“Broadband service may be difficult to obtain in rural areas with low population, environmental barriers and greater geographical distances,” said Andrea Fast, senior communications specialist with Frontier.

In Carbondale, Frontier has installed gigabit fiber optics along Illinois 13 from Reed Station Road to Striegel Road with many of the customers in that area having access to very high-speed Internet.

Frontier General Manager Eric Shadley said the network provides speeds up to 1 gigabit, or 1,000 megabits to customers along Illinois 13.

“We all know access to fast, affordable Internet is a game-changer for towns, cities and neighborhoods,” he said in December. “This empowers the community and provides a key economic gateway to prosperity.”

The network provided speeds 50 times faster than what was available when it was first installed, making Carbondale the region’s first “Gigabit City.”

Mediacom, another major provider in Southern Illinois, had high residential speeds to offer a wide variety of the region. It can offer a standard of 15 megabytes all the way up to 150 megabytes in the region. It is currently offering 1 gigabyte speeds in Missouri, according to Mediacom Communications Director Phyllis Peters.

She said some business customers in the area already capitalize on the 1 gig speeds.

Public Opinion

The Paul Simon Public Policy Institute conducted a poll about Internet access in Southern Illinois that reached a random sample of 600 people in Jackson and Williamson counties.

Institute Director David Yepsen said the survey was a replication of a poll conducted by the University of Illinois at Springfield and the idea is to get data to policy makers and researchers so they can use it to form more informed opinions, write policy and steer funding. 

The author of the report produced by the Institute was Shiloh Deitz. She said she was surprised by the number of people that still do not have Internet. The report revealed that 18 percent of those surveyed did not have access at home.

“I was surprised by how much income and education levels were still correlated to people’s ability to have access,” Deitz said. “Those with higher income and education levels are more likely to have Internet access.”

She said based on the report that 50.5 percent of those people who do not have Internet had an income level below $30,000 and 62 percent of those without access had a education level of a GED or less.

“If you think of disparity of access to Internet, it is only going to increase the lack of opportunities these people have,” Deitz said.

Twenty-six percent of those people who said they didn’t have Internet access say they didn’t have a computer and 33 percent reported it is too expensive for access.

The other major factor of those individuals not connected to the Internet is that 22 percent of people say they don’t have a use for the Internet or don’t have any interest.

The Next Generation

Yepsen challenged those individuals who say they don’t have a need for Internet access by asking if that answer is good enough for the next generation that would include their grandchildren.

“If we are worried about growing smaller communities, we need to be worried about Internet access and broadband access,” he said. “Maybe the parents and grandparents don’t need it, but the children will for economic opportunity.”

Steven Mitchell, Connect SI network provider coordinator, said those who don’t see the need for Internet sometimes don't know what online access can provide.

“There has to be some driving reason for them to access the Internet,” he said. “It could home health care. It could be communicating with their grandchildren who live far away.

“There is not only education about what can be done with broadband, but also how do it.”

Yepsen said it is a challenge for the region to find a way to get broadband Internet into places where it is difficult to have service. It was reported in the survey that areas near Herrin and in the Bottoms of Jackson County were areas with more access problems, but Yepsen went further than the survey boundaries. 

“I think it isn’t just Herrin, it is Alexander County where it is very difficult to get access,” he said. “Some of this is a chicken and the egg thing. We don’t have the people or the economy, so the private sector doesn’t bring access to us. Therefore, we can’t grow and have better jobs.

“How to we break that cycle?”

He said it is incumbent on the local elected offices, business owners and providers sitting down and saying Internet access is essential and learning how to foster its best use.

“It is not enough just to say that we like it,” Yepsen said.

Mitchell said most towns with more than 250 or 500 people definitely should have access to the Internet either through broadband or dial up.

He said if a community doesn’t have internet at all, it usually falls on the provider.

“Either the provider’s equipment doesn’t reach out that far, or they haven’t had the chance to build out that far,” Mitchell said. “Whether that is cable or DSL, it all requires infrastructure and cost. They might not have budgeted or attempted to get out there.”

He said Internet providers have spent a lot of money in the region expanding its coverage to those that didn’t have any options or poor service.

“Over the past five or six years, it is a completely different landscape,” Mitchell said. “It is amazing how much connectivity is out there. It might be slower and might be expensive, but at least it’s there.”

dustin.duncan@thesouthern.com

618-351-5823

on twitter: @zd2000

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Dustin Duncan is a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan covering Carbondale.

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