Matt Schmit at The University of Chicago

Illinois Broadband Director Matt Schmit is no newbie, nor is the state’s broadband office.

“In a lot of ways, those of us from the ‘old guard’ have been clamoring for BEAD for more than a decade,” said Schmit in a recent interview with Telecompetitor. “And I guess I’m part of the old guard, those who helped open the first wave of state broadband offices.

“We were fighting for the approach of the Capital Projects Funds and the magnitude of the BEAD program a decade ago — broadband investment from the federal government that’s state directed and community driven.”

In a world that’s experiencing an influx of new professionals, Schmit is aware he’s a bit of an outlier. In a previous role, he was named “Broadband Hero” by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers (NATOA, 2014) and “Tech Savvy Legislator” (2013) recognition from Government Technology magazine when he was a Minnesota state senator.

Recently Telecompetitor caught up with Schmit to uncover what’s going on in Illinois, where he serves as broadband director and his take on the BEAD program and what it will mean to Illinois.

Two States Ahead of the Curve

In 2019, Illinois’ $45 billion capital investment plan included $400 million to fund a new broadband program that would be dubbed “Connect Illinois.”

That summer, Schmit was recruited from Minnesota to stand up the office that would oversee the grant program and Illinois’ broadband efforts. Schmit was impressed by the state’s commitment to broadband infrastructure, it’s past approach to American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding a decade earlier, and the fact that Illinois was home to strong institutional support, such as the University of Illinois System, the University of Chicago, and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Illinois was impressed with Minnesota’s Border-to-Border program, which Schmit had played a large part in creating while serving as Minnesota state senator. Naturally, the Land of Lincoln hoped to learn from the Gopher State’s experience.

“When we introduced the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program in Minnesota,” Schmit noted, “legislative counsel pushed back and said, ‘states don’t do this… internet expansion is for the federal government.’”

Schmit ultimately drafted the language himself, seeking $100 million in state funding in 2014, having established Minnesota’s office of broadband a year earlier. Although only $20 million was appropriated, “it was a down payment on what was to come,” he added. The next year, $100 million was included in the Minnesota governor’s budget and the program had found its legs.

Minnesota was ahead of the curve, and Illinois would be, too.

“Fast forward to Fall 2019 and Illinois was focused on best practices from around the country,” Schmit noted. “The Illinois Broadband Advisory Council engaged Pew Charitable Trusts and other experts to identify what worked elsewhere.

“Time and again, the Minnesota model was raised as the standard-bearer, which is testament to the hard work and vision of those who opened the office and administered its program. I was a legislator with some very specific ideas, but others should get credit for standing up the office and running the program. They set an incredible example for the country.”

A Year Like No Other

“We launched the Connect Illinois program in February 2020 and our first application deadline was that April,” says Schmit. “In between, the world changed forever. What started out as a $400 million state investment would turn into a program approaching $1.5 billion.”

Connect Illinois is now having a very productive year. The office is currently notifying successful grant applicants.

“Over the past eight months, our team reviewed 238 applications seeking over $1.4 billion in grant support. The timing, the workload, and the added capacity needed to pull this off has prepared us well for what’s to come with BEAD.”

The current Illinois funding available is a fraction of what was requested. Nevertheless, the $350 million available is a hefty amount. Funding sources include the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), including $253 million from the Capital Projects Fund and $46 million in State and Fiscal Recovery funds, as well as more than $50 million in state bond funds.

“The experience has been exhaustive and exhausting, but it’s readied us for the BEAD application process,” says Schmit. “Along the way, our office of two [full-time employees] grew to 10, which complements a strong team of consultants and collaborators.”

Connect Illinois’ Next Round

Schmit, calling BEAD “the next round of Connect Illinois,” is extremely optimistic given relationships developed in the program’s initial work.

“We have a track record of building trust,” explains Schmit. “Providers that may never have taken a state grant before are now familiar with the process. That puts our office, and more importantly, Illinois in a great position to attract the right partners for BEAD.”

Illinois is receiving an even $1 billion in BEAD funding, for which Schmit anticipates taking applications beginning in the summer. He’s a big fan of the quarterly application process Connect Illinois has used, so expect multiple BEAD “application waves” in Illinois.

“We want folks to apply when they’re ready,” explains Schmit. “Traditionally we’ve had relationships with providers based on a collaborative, conversational format where we go back and forth with ideas and proposals that will work for the State and for the applicant.”

Schmit adds that multiple waves help the State broadband office pace itself, but that the real benefit comes from providers and potential applicants being able to move forward with confidence in the funding requested.

“This might not be right for every state, but I’m of the opinion that if you put it all in one or even two waves, applicants may be overzealous and bite off more than they can chew or overly cautious and not take on enough,” says Schmit. “We want to put applicants in a position to right-size bids for areas they are most comfortable with.”

Right Versus First

Schmit bristles a little when we talk timelines. This is a state that delayed current Connect Illinois funding to make sure selection criteria and processes were shored up. Getting it right he says, is more important than getting it done first.

He describes Illinois’ approach to its BEAD funding rounds as “flipping the script” by including many of the hard-to-serve locations first. This strategy, he says, will combine locations that are relatively easy to reach with those that are more difficult to reach, thereby making the hard-to-serve locations palatable and taking them “off the map in wave one of funding.”

An additional benefit of putting difficult to reach locations in wave one is that it will help provide a realistic estimate of the cost for universal service in Illinois.

Illinois currently shows as having 187K unserved and 90K underserved locations. While the state is focused on getting fiber to as many locations as possible, Schmit acknowledges that there is not enough funding to accomplish universal service without alternative technologies like fixed wireless.

Schmit doesn’t want to stop at merely deploying service, though; he wants to see communities have choices when it comes to internet service price, technology, and performance.

“Hopefully after the last BEAD dollar is spent, we can look back and have universal coverage, promoted competition, and see a lot of providers poised to keep investing,” says Schmit. “We can close digital divide gaps today with this program, but it’s critical we keep investing so the gaps don’t re-emerge.”

“I applaud an approach that puts much of this work in the hands of the states,” says Schmit. “For the last decade, people like me have been asking for a sizable grant program controlled at the state level – it’s a big lift but I am excited to see it through.”

Join the Conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Don’t Miss Any of Our Content

What’s happening with broadband and why is it important? Find out by subscribing to Telecompetitor’s newsletter today.

You have Successfully Subscribed!