Nestled in Illinois' recently passed telecommunications rewrite bill are two largely unnoticed measures to address issues of technology access and infrastructure for all Illinois residents . The bill, which focuses primarily on ensuring competitive practices and quality of service within the telecommunications industry, also creates a Digital Divide Elimination Fund and a Digital Divide Elimination Infrastructure Fund. The combined funds will have, at minimum, an unprecedented $30 million in funding over the next three years.
The Digital Divide Elimination Fund will provide money for community technology centers (CTCs), public hospitals, libraries and park districts in their efforts to address the digital divide. Grants can be used to fund volunteer recruitment and management, training and instruction, infrastructure and related goods and services for these organizations.
The Digital Divide Elimination Infrastructure Fund focuses on encouraging the creation of broadband infrastructures for areas where it is currently limited, such as rural areas and parts of the city of Chicago. Funds will be used for the construction of high-speed data transmission in areas of Illinois where telecommunications carriers have sought exemptions from providing these services. In addition to these funds, the Illinois Commerce Commission will also monitor and analyze the status and deployment of telecommunications services to consumers, and any resulting "digital divisions" between consumers.
These programs will be financed through three distinct sources of funding. The first, and likely largest, source will come from a settlement stemming from Ameritech's billing and business practices with small business customers. Ameritech agreed to refund its small business customers $90 million and also pay $30 million over three years to finance both digital divide funds. Additionally, the funds will be financed by civil penalties paid by telecommunications carriers for violations of the Public Utilities Act. Forty percent of all civil penalties paid will be shared equally between the two funds. Lastly, telecommunications consumers will have the option of making voluntary contributions to both funds.
Grants made under the Digital Divide Elimination Fund will be administered by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs. A five-member committee appointed by Gov. George Ryan and legislative leaders will oversee the grant making process.
The telecommunications rewrite bill incorporates many components of the Eliminate the Digital Divide bill supported through the Community Technology Center Network of Chicago, a newly formed local affiliate of the national-based CTCNet. The bill, like many other bills competing in this tight fiscal year, died in the state Senate Rules Committee. The bill sought approximately $10 million to expand access to technology in distressed Illinois communities by establishing funding opportunities for community-based technology centers, computer recycling programs and technology job-training initiatives.
This is a timely windfall for digital divide efforts. As cutbacks in federal funding sources for community based technology initiatives are threatened, local demand for such funding only grows. Proposed cuts include $55 million from the U.S. Department of Education budget for education technology program funding; a 66 percent decrease in the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Opportunities Program, from $46 million to $15 million; and a 9.5 percent reduction in funds for U.S. Department of Labor discretionary programs, where Workforce Investment Act programs are housed.
The increasing local need for community technology support is illustrated by the experiences of the Illinois Community Technology Fund (ICTF), a three-year initiative that resulted from the Ameritech, SBC merger. ICTF was created to "serve as a catalyst to ensure that citizens are prepared to live and work in a growing technological society." In 2001, ICTF received 450 funding requests totaling $17 million, exceeding the $1.4 million capacity of the grants program by 88 percent.
Additionally, a recent survey conducted in Chicago by the Mayor's Council of Technology Advisors and the Metropolitan Planning Council shows that agencies providing community technology access and programs face critical obstacles in providing high quality services and state-of-the-art programming. Many respondents indicated a need for additional funding to develop programs that provide high-quality services to underserved populations in job-skills development, programs to align community educational programs with school curricula and a wide variety of other community programs. Nearly half of the respondents also reported that they depend on a dial-up modem, severely limiting their capacity to provide programs such as distance learning, interactive programming and joint ventures with schools and libraries.
Chicago area communities continue to require additional services and resources to address inequalities in access to and applications of technology. Funding provided through the telecommunications rewrite bill is a significant step forward in meeting this demand.