Ag director commits to rural broadband

Sullivan follows through on Pritzker pledge, sees opportunity in capital bill

Internet access is essential to provide economic opportunity to rural areas. (Shutterstock)

Internet access is essential to provide economic opportunity to rural areas. (Shutterstock)

By Ted Cox

The head of the state Department of Agriculture is following through on Gov. Pritzker’s pledge to “deliver high-speed broadband internet coverage to everyone, in every corner of Illinois.”

In an interview this week with National Public Radio Illinois, acting Agriculture Director John Sullivan emphasized that he’s aware internet access is a problem in rural areas of the state and is working to address it.

Sullivan said it was a persistent topic in conversations held by Pritzker’s agricultural transition team before his inauguration. “This was on everybody’s radar,” he said. “It just came up in almost every conversation we had.”

In his inaugural address Pritzker said, “We will work to deliver high-speed broadband internet coverage to everyone, in every corner of Illinois. Today every new job and every student is dependent upon connectivity, and no part of our state should be left out.”

Sullivan echoed that this week, saying it was “a top priority” both for individuals and for businesses.

“It’s really a hamper that drags a business down and holds it back,” Sullivan said. Sullivan, who served 14 years in the state Senate from Rushville, a farm community northwest of Springfield, added that he had firsthand experience with that through the family auction business, much of which is conducted online these days.

“We’ve seen in rural parts of the state that’s where access is most limited,” he said, adding that it can be a drag on “jobs and opportunities in those areas.”

State Sen. Andy Manar, whose hometown of Bunker Hill sits on the opposite side of Springfield, has spoken about how improved internet access could provide remote jobs to areas where employment opportunities are otherwise limited.

The Illinois Farm Bureau, which cheered Pritzker’s appointment of Sullivan to the top state agriculture position in December (Senate approval is still pending), has also come out in support of a $600 million federal pilot program to expand rural broadband through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new Farm Bill belatedly passed last year also called for a $600 million investment in rural broadband, administered through the USDA and the Federal Communications Commission, although critics charged it gave too much say to local internet service providers to block local programs.

Sullivan said he expected the state to take up its own initiative “not if but when the Governor’s Office and the General Assembly sit down and talk about an infrastructure or capital bill,” also listed as a top priority in Pritzker’s budget address earlier this month.

Suliivan said it was a rural problem, not a regional problem. “It seemed to be a problem in all parts of the state,” he said, north, south, east, and west. Without committing to a specific state funding figure, he estimated a required investment of “certainly tens of millions, if not $100 million,” adding, “I know it’s a big number because there are vast areas of the state that need their internet service upgraded.”