Gov. J.B. Pritzker appointed members Thursday to the Connect Illinois initiative, a step forward for a $420 million plan to expand broadband internet access to rural parts of the state.

Connect Illinois will “centralize state agency resources, collaborate with private-sector experts and bipartisan legislators from around Illinois and break down government silos to expand broadband access across the entire state,” according to a news release.

Connect Illinois will focus on telehealth, education and economic development.

“High-speed broadband internet is an absolute necessity for economic progress and educational attainment, but too many of our towns and counties and communities have been left out of the digital revolution, especially downstate,” Pritzker said.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation creating the initiative in 2018 that put the wheels in motion to assess how much the program would cost. Illinois Department of Agriculture John Sullivan made the formal request for funding earlier this year.

“This is good news for rural Illinois,” said state Sen. Jil Tracy, R-Quincy. “This investment will increase internet access for rural communities and provide a boost to agriculture and downstate economic development.”

The $420 million for the initiative was included in Illinois’ $45 billion infrastructure spending plan. That plan is being funded by doubling of the state’s motor fuel tax along with other tax and fee hikes.

Of that total allotment, $20 million will go to the Illinois Century Network, an existing broadband network serving K-12 schools, higher education, public libraries, museums, state and local governments and the health care community.

Rural areas have limited options when it comes to internet providers, often paying high prices for internet download speeds that are a fraction of those available in metropolitan areas.

A report from the Federal Communications Commission said fifty-six percent of rural Illinoisans, about 770,000 people, don’t have broadband access. The national average was 40 percent.

The new members of the initiative will produce a report by the end of the year on how to best proceed.

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