A Holistic Vision for Digital Skills in the Heart of the Midwest: How Illinois is Investing its Digital Equity and Broadband Funds

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, April 08, 2024

Note: This post is second in a series of blogs highlighting how states are implementing new federal digital skills and broadband funding. The first post covered Colorado.

The federal Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program will collectively send more than $1 billion to Illinois, and state officials have been working for more than a year to lay out their roadmap for implementation.

The State Digital Equity Plan describes how Illinois officials envision supporting broadband adoption, digital devices, and digital skills, while the BEAD 5-year Action Plan and Initial Proposal Vol. II lay out the state’s plans for building out broadband access and increasing affordability and adoption for the 12+ million residents of Illinois.

Below, we highlight some key elements of the Illinois plans, which can serve as a model for advocates interested in advancing digital equity work in their own states and communities.

Building on local momentum

Illinois broadband officials are intentional about building on the work that is already underway in local communities. The state’s Digital Equity Plan (the Plan) explains: Seventeen counties and local governments have published local digital equity plans for which they assessed their baseline, convened stakeholders, established goals, and developed strategies and roadmaps toward digital equity. Many of those local plans have drawn from the expertise of digital equity practitioners who have been working on the ground and in communities for years.

Illinois Office of Broadband (OIB) Director Matt Schmit notes that many local digital inclusion coalitions launched or expanded their work in the early months of the pandemic, and thus have several years of experience under their belts. “As the state embarks on our digital equity conversation, we really value the local conversations [that have already been happening],” he says.

The federal Digital Equity Act is a new opportunity, he adds, but it’s not a new concept. “Some communities have already put their finger on an approach that works. We want to help them continue their momentum, and help them grow.”

Digital skills play a prominent role in many local efforts. For example, Connect Waukegan’s mail survey of households found that a whopping 49% of respondents would like to be more confident users of the internet, and 42% were interested in participating in skills training.

(Local plans are listed in Table 4, beginning on page 73 of the State Plan. In many cases, that table contains direct links to the full local plans.)


Intentional connections to broader statewide goals

The state’s Plan emphasizes that the IOB and the Illinois Broadband Advisory Council see their digital equity outcomes as integral to supporting other statewide efforts related to telehealth, education, and economic development. The Plan outlines specific ways in which digital equity work is embedded in the strategies and goals of state agencies beyond the broadband office, including the Department of Aging, Illinois Community College Board, Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), and the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, among others.

By spelling out these connections, state broadband officials are expanding the universe of stakeholders who have an interest in seeing digital equity outcomes achieved. This will be vital to embedding digital equity activities throughout state agencies over the longer term, a crucial requirement for sustaining this work after dedicated federal funding ends.

The Plan also calls out the importance of digital inclusion in supporting the growth of Illinois’ multi-billion-dollar agriculture economy. As precision agriculture and Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) devices become more widely adopted, there is an urgent need for better rural broadband access and more technologically skilled workers. By acknowledging the role of the agricultural sector in the state’s Plan, Illinois is positioning itself to support rural residents (one of the covered populations states are mandated to serve under the Digital Equity Act) and to ensure that its digital equity activities support a priority area for workforce and economic development.

Investments in digital skills will help achieve broadband adoption goals

Illinois’ Plan clearly recognizes that achieving goals related to broadband and device adoption will require improved digital skills, and vice versa. Far from being discrete activities, research has shown that these are mutually reinforcing, and that public policies can help shape whether individuals are caught up in a vicious cycle (if they lack access and skills) or a virtuous one (if they have meaningful opportunities to gain access and build skills).

In particular, Figure 11 of the Plan shows “Causes of residents’ low [broadband] adoption rates,” as cited by Illinois nonprofits and community anchor institutions in a survey conducted by the state. Two of the top five reasons listed pertain to digital skills, including 73% of respondents who cited not having “sufficient digital literacy skills” a reason that residents don’t have broadband at home. This tracks with earlier national research that found that people with high levels of confidence in their digital skills were twice as likely to have signed up for an affordable home internet program than those with less confidence in their skills.


An emerging partnership with workforce development

IOB’s State Government Broadband Working Group has already helped to spark a new collaboration with the DCEO Office of Employment and Training, which is leading Illinois’ development of a five-year apprenticeship plan and new four-year Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) State Plan.

The Plan notes that DCEO “views upskilling and reskilling on digital literacy skills as key to fostering workforce advancement and wealth generation opportunities among Illinois residents,” [emphasis added] and continues: “Together the IOB and Office of Employment and Training can strategically deploy funding to optimize the opportunities available for Illinoisans—especially those who are re-entering the workforce or who are marginally employed or disabled.”

Among the aligned objectives identified by the working group are:

  • All Illinoisans possess the digital skills required to participate in the digital economy.
  • Increased investment in agriculture technology (e.g., purchase of IoT-enabled technology, automated equipment)
  • Scaled education and training programs for skills development in tech-related occupations
  • Increased number of Illinoisans who can work from home
  • Scaled education and training programs for skills development in the broadband industry (see below for how Illinois’ BEAD plan elaborates on this question)
  • Increased job creation in broadband-related roles
  • Increased adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies

Spelling out these objectives is important because it helps digital inclusion programs situate their work within a larger whole. It also helps stakeholders of all types to connect the dots between foundational or beginner-level classes and more advanced digital skill-building, as part of career pathways that result in stackable, industry-recognized credentials.


A training ground for new broadband workers

Illinois has long invested in upskilling as part of its public works projects, and its BEAD proposal outlines how it will continue to do so with its $1.04 billion in new broadband funds. For example, BEAD subgrantees are required to comply with the Illinois Works Apprenticeship Initiative.

The initiative requires that apprentices work at least 10% of the hours in projects costing $500,000 or more. This means that BEAD grant recipients will need to ensure that there are apprenticeship pathways as part of their projects – reflecting a key principle in NSC’s people-powered infrastructure campaign.

The BEAD proposal also outlines the conditions under which subgrantees must meet “local hire” provisions, and mandates that projects over $10 million include a project labor agreement. The proposal further states that IOB will “encourage applicants to submit plans to conduct targeted outreach to populations – including but not limited to women and people of color — that have traditionally been underrepresented in broadband and information technology jobs.”

The BEAD proposal also includes a detailed list of state workforce development and education resources that grant applicants can draw on to strengthen their initiatives. One such resource is the Illinois Works Construction Pre-Apprenticeship Program, which funds nonprofit community-based organizations and others to provide pre-apprenticeship skills training free of charge, to help under-represented workers prepare for careers in the trades.

Notably, because Illinois is often an exporter of skilled labor to neighboring states, the high standards set in its BEAD proposal may have a positive spillover effect. The degree to which this occurs will depend in part on the exact timing of BEAD rollout (that is, whether Illinois is ahead or behind of its neighbors in awarding contracts) and whether there is overlap between Illinois’ chosen subgrantees and those selected by nearby states.


Key stopgap investments to support practitioners on the ground

Illinois is unusual among states nationally in that it has chosen to make interim investments in local digital inclusion organizations before federal Digital Equity Act funds begin to flow. Using state resources, Illinois launched a Digital Equity Capacity Kickstarter (DECK) grant program in 2023.

The DECK program is meant to cover the funding gap between the early-pandemic-era launch of many digital equity programs and the forthcoming arrival of federal DE funds, says IOB Assistant Director Devon Braunstein. “We wanted to address the challenge of how to sustain [local DE program] staff that were hired and programs that were stood up, so that by the time the larger grant program comes along they can [hit the ground running],” she says.

There is a rich array of organizations providing digital inclusion programs in Illinois, including many NSC member organizations. The state’s DE Plan documents more than 60 program providers (see Table 5). Not surprisingly, many are clustered in sections of the state that are major population centers (see Figure 1).

Announcement of the DECK program triggered an overwhelmingly enthusiastic response from practitioners, with more than $12 million in requests for funding received. In 2023, the IOB awarded $1 million in DECK grants, and officials anticipate issuing another $1.5 million in awards in the first half of 2024, after which it will be time to launch their federal DE funding.

While Illinois officials will have final responsibility for designing the implementation of Digital Equity Act funding, “we’re hoping to do some co-creation with stakeholders,” says Braunstein. “We will come to them with a final opportunity to weigh in before our grant program goes live.”

IOB Director Schmit concurs, adding some big-picture context: “We are anticipating about $7 million a year in federal DE allocation,” he says. “[With those funds,] we are going to be able to do some great work, but we [will also] have to engage philanthropy and other stakeholders to make sure that this work has legs and can be continued over the long term.”


Looking forward: A commitment to shared data

With that longer term in mind, IOB officials recognize the importance of having a shared baseline and set of data tools. To that end, the state’s Plan states that to provide a common fact base for the state’s digital equity practitioners, the IOB and the Illinois Broadband Lab (IBL) will create and maintain:

  • A publicly available dataset and tools for practitioners around the state
  • A public-facing dashboard to track key metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • A public-facing asset inventory
  • Ongoing updates to the IL State Digital Equity Plan

IOB Director Schmit is blunt about the thinking behind this ambitious vision. “We have to be able to demonstrate that our investments are helping to eliminate the digital divide,” he says, and KPIs can help to illustrate that impact. In addition, “we want to put our local communities in a position to go after competitive [Digital Equity Act] dollars and other funding sources for sustainability.” Data-sharing tools are a cost-effective way to help them make the case for additional funding.

“Having the data in a public dashboard is really important,” adds Assistant Director Braunstein. “When people are able to see their own story as part of the broader story that they fit into, it’s really powerful and activating.” Drawing on her prior experience in local digital equity work, she adds: “Once you ask people about their experience, they can come together in community and organize themselves.”


The bottom line: What others can learn from Illinois

Skills advocates who are involved in the implementation of their own states’ BEAD and Digital Equity Plans can learn from Illinois’ example:

  • Be intentional about aligning state digital equity goals with other state agencies’ strategies and priorities. Embedding the work across departments makes it more durable over the long term.
  • Provide stopgap support to help practitioners build capacity in anticipation of forthcoming DE funding.
  • Require BEAD subgrantee applicants to be specific about how they will recruit and train underrepresented workers, and connect them with existing state education and workforce resources that can help them do that effectively.
  • Create a centralized data hub that allows local programs to see how their work fits into a larger whole, and positions them to compete for additional federal funding opportunities.