MECHANICSBURG, Ill. (AP) — High-speed Internet access is a fact of life in most of Illinois, but a luxury that evades some residents in rural communities.
Slightly more than 13 percent of the state had no broadband access at the end of 2011 as defined by minimum-speed standards set by the Federal Communications Commission, the (Springfield) State Journal-Register reported (http://bit.ly/NStv1S) Sunday.
But some wireless carriers and rural electric and telephone cooperatives across the state have begun extending fiber-optic broadband services.
That includes Shawnee Telephone, a communications cooperative in southeastern Illinois, which has installed fiber-optic broadband in more than 1,200 rural households and 400 businesses, as well as 35 public schools, libraries and law-enforcement agencies in 2010 using millions in federal grants and loans. The expansion is scheduled for completion this fall.
Wayne Bridgewater, 72, of Mechanicsburg, drives to a McDonald's in nearby Springfield twice a week to use the restaurant's free high-speed Internet service. The retired electrician doesn't want to pay for broadband service on his fixed income.
"I do all my shopping, if I'm doing shopping. I do my emails to catch up on the news of friends," Bridgewater said of his treks to Springfield. "I do a lot of research on subjects that I'm interested in."
Bridgewater's story is not uncommon when it comes to the issue of broadband access, cost and speed, said Drew Clark, executive director of Broadband Illinois, a nonprofit research group based in Springfield.
And he said the definition of broadband is changing as the minimum download speeds are lowered. According to Broadband Illinois, the FCC changed its minimum-speed standard for broadband from downloads speeds of 200 kilobits per second to 768 kilobits per second.
"In 2008, they said, if you don't have 768 kilobits per second, you don't have broadband," Clark said.
He expects the minimum-speed standard to keep rising along with demand for broadband. He said fiber-optic networks could provide the kind of capacity needed to adapt to ever-faster speeds, though satellite companies also are pushing higher speeds.
Although access and cost remain issues in rural areas, there is progress.
Prairie Power Inc. of Jacksonville hopes to complete an agreement in the next few weeks for a fiber-optic network that would serve 10 member cooperatives, said Greg Seipel, vice president of engineering and operations, and Verizon and AT&T upgraded broadband speeds this summer.
Even so, Bridgewater said he is realistic about the prospects of the big cable companies extending broadband to clusters of rural homes like his.
"They're going to accommodate people in the city of Springfield, where there's 100,000 people," said Bridgewater. "They're not going to run a line 14 miles to one customer."