Illinois earns broadband infrastructure funding, highlighting efforts in Chicago and Evanston to bridge the digital divide


Illustration by Gemma DeCetra

Chicago and Evanston organizations work to provide devices, connectivity and digital learning opportunities to residents.

Lily Ogburn, Reporter

Illinois received $253.7 million in December to increase broadband infrastructure statewide from the American Rescue Plan’s Capital Projects Fund.

In light of the new funding, which has yet to be distributed, community advocates in Evanston and Chicago are hoping to bring attention to bridging the digital divide, or unequal access to internet and devices. 

“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen that reliable electricity and internet access is crucial for public health, the success of small businesses, educating our children and improving quality of life,” Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) said in a press release.

Hal Woods, the chief of policy at nonprofit group Kids First Chicago, predicted the recent broadband infrastructure award will prioritize unserved rural areas. He also said he’s hopeful it will fund increased internet options in Chicago.

In Evanston, residents have access to free Wi-Fi through the Evanston Public Library hotspot lending program.

As of 2016, the EPL began loaning T-Mobile hotspot devices to residents to provide on-the-go internet access. The popular program has grown since then, with over 100 mobile hotspots now in circulation.

The Evanston Public Library is an urban library,” said Jenette Sturges, the EPL communications and marketing manager. “It serves a really wide variety of our residents, so it’s everyone from our book clubs and kids programming to our population of residents who do not have internet access at home or maybe don’t have secure housing.”

Sturges noted that with just a mobile device, it is difficult to apply for jobs and perform other tasks that are easier on computers. She added that the “know-how” of technology is just as important as the device itself. 

To address these aspects of the divide, EPL offers Thursday Tech Tutorial classes where participants can learn how to use technology devices. Residents can also check out a laptop from the laptop vending machine at the Robert Crown Community Center.

The digital divide has also been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially because kids without technology may be disadvantaged, according to K1C.

“There’s no way that they’re getting access to the schooling that they need,” said K1C Chief of Data Science and Research José Pacas.

More than 197,000 households in Chicago were disconnected in 2020, meaning they either lacked internet access or a device to access the internet, according to a K1C report.

Pacas added that 2020 American Community Survey data shows that predominantly Black and Latine communities see significantly higher rates of disconnection than white communities. 

“I would say unequivocally that the digital divide is a racial equity issue,” Woods said.

In 2020, K1C partnered with the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools, community organizations and philanthropy groups to create Chicago Connected, a 4-year program aiming to close the digital divide for students and provide adults with digital education.

Chicago Connected offers classes to teach adults everything from setting up an email account to earning certificates for industry-recognized skills through its digital learning program.

“We’ve really designed a program with parents, with community organizations, with government agencies that reflects these families’ needs,” Woods said.

Chicago Connected’s program has helped more than 100,000 CPS students access the internet so far.

The program is well-received by Chicago families. Chicago Connected reported 82% of families viewed its program favorably.

“Before Chicago Connected, I did not have the internet,” said Woodlawn CPS parent Kendra Torres in a testimonial. “Between working from home and supporting my 8-year-old son with remote learning, quality internet became essential.”

But as the government and local organizations work to eradicate the digital divide, Pacas said the final gap gets harder to close.

He noted reaching households with other systemic issues — like lack of housing stability — is the difficult next step.

When the (disconnected household) numbers don’t show that same speed of decline, that should not be a reason to be disheartened,” Pacas said. “This last step is tough, but it’s absolutely necessary.” 

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @LilyOgburn

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