Winter-Spring 2002

Closing The Resource Gap: 1-2-3 Advocacy to Improve Illinois Communities through Telecommunications, in Three Stages of Regulatory Competition, 1997-2001
by Layton Olsen

Stage 1. Resources for Community Technology Centers from the regulatory process, 1997-1999

In 1998, as part of the consolidation of Regional Bells, begun with SBC acquisition of PAC Tel the previous year, SBC reached an agreement to acquire Ameritech and filed a merger petition with the Illinois Commerce Commission for the Illinois part of the merger.  Among participants in the 1998-99 merger proceeding before the ICC were several Community Intervenors, led by DSSA/Neighborhood Learning Network which had worked with community technology initiatives in low income areas of West Town and Bronzeville, especially via public housing sites and in links with schools.  Other intervenors included the Chicago-based Community Workshop on Economic Development statewide coalition, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the advisory committee to Chicago Housing Authority, and City Innovation, a community-business-education-public leadership support group.  Over thirty groups endorsed and participated in the Bridging the Digital Divide Coalition's efforts, which included several public hearing on the West and South Sides of Chicago.  These groups sought $25 to $65 million in community telecommunication program funds, along the lines of the agreement SBC had made in California to create a Community Technology Foundation.

The September 1999 merger order allocated $7.5 million for community and consumer initiatives, including $4.5 million for the establishment of the Illinois Community Technology Fund for a three year program to support community technology centers,  and $3.0 M million for a separate telephone customer awareness program.

Stage 2. Distributions from Illinois Community Technology Fund, and Enactment of Eliminate the Digital Divide Law by Illinois General Assembly, 2000-2001

In early 2000, an eleven member board of the Illinois Community Technology Fund was appointed by the Illinois Commerce Commission to manage the programs and grants. ICTF issued an RFP in mid-2000 for grants up to $50,000 for community technology centers, and received over 375 applications requesting a total of $17 million.  In the face of this major need, ICTF was able to make $1.4 million in grants in spring 2001 to 42 groups, and in early 2002 is expected to make another $1.6 million in grants.

On the legislative side, in January 2000 the now-renamed Digital Opportunity Coalition drafted a bill to provide state legislative resources for a comprehensive program of technology centers and IT training in many settings in low income and rural areas.  Introduced by Representative Connie Howard, chair of House Computer Technology Committee, this bill passed the House, but not the Senate.  A compromise at the end of the session allocated $1 million in the Eliminate the Digital Divide Law for a pilot program of grants to community technology centers in the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA).  With input from Digital Opportunity Coalition, the DCCA grant program was designed to supplement the ICTF grant program, and to be a part of the Bureau of Technology and Industrial Competitiveness along with other technology support and financing initiatives for small businesses, school-to-work, and manufacturing extension services.  DCCA issued its Request for Proposals (RFP) in January 2001 and made $1 million in Digital Divide grants to 24 community technology centers in June 2001 , announced at the same time as Governor George Ryan signed the Telecommunications Rewrite Law which provided substantial new resources for underserved communities.  The program is continuing and proposals in response to the RFP for the 2002 awards were due last October.

Stage 3. Expanded legislative funding through coordinated efforts and CTCNet Chicago Chapter networking, 2000-2001

Many of the efforts described above were led by members of CTCNet in many capacities.  In the summer of 2000, after the national CTCNet conference in Atlanta, several members decided to incorporate a Chicago Chapter that would include advocacy for new resources for centers as part of its mission. Led by CTCNet national board members and meetings at Charles Hayes Family Investment Center, CTCNet Chicago has 35 members, with committees on Professional Development, Resources and Advocacy, and Secretariat services housed at the Policy Research and Action Group, a four-university consortium, staffed at Loyola University.  The Advocacy Committee, led by parties at Erie Neighborhood House, Chicago Jobs Council, and Metropolitan Planning Council, launched an effort in spring 2001 to increase funding for community technology centers and IT training, with a proposal for $9 million.

Other resources and advocacy activites developed during fall 2000-spring 2001 included:

  • Mini-grants by DCCA, secured by Rep. Howard, to City Innovation and the Community Workshop on Economic Development, to serve as technical assistance providers during the spring 2000 legislative session.
  • Recommendations drafted by CTCNet Chicago and the Telecommunication Innovation and Access Network (successor to City Innovation) to expand IT training in underserved areas by the Chicago Jobs Council and State Agenda on Community Economic Development were introduced by Rep. Connie Howard; the bill passed the House, but not the Senate.
  • Development of Chicago Computer Recycling Network to propose Computer Recycling Network legislation for the State of Illinois.
  • Meetings with City of Chicago and suburban state legislators in their district offices, and CTCNet Chicago sponsorship of Tech Day in Springfield in May near the end of the legislative session.

As a result of these combined efforts and the overall pressures to improve telecommunication services, in May the General Assembly enacted a revised Illinois Telecommunications Act, a rewrite of the state’s basic statute on telecommunications regulation.  The new law includes provision for payments by telephone companies of a minimum of $15 million into the DCCA Digital Divide Elimination Fund and $15 million into ICC Digital Divide Infrastructure Fund over three years, beginning in 2002.

Stage 4:  Looking Ahead

Looking to 2002 and beyond, the following developments are anticipated:

  • The five-member Advisory Committee to the DCCA Digital Divide Elimination Fund will hold public hearings, expected February-March, on priorities for the three-year $15 million funding, with the CTCNet Chicago Advocacy Committee assisting with testimony by CTCs.  The Midwest Technology Access Group has background on the fund and a survey tool for community leaders to vote on best ways to spend these funds.
  • Illinois Community Technology Fund and DCCA Computer Technology Center grant program will announce a total of $2.1 million in small grants to CTC's across the state, including afterschool centers and public agencies which have at least twelve hours per week of open public access.
  • The Illinois Community Technology Fund will award a three year grant to a statewide Community Computer Center support program to assist in professional development of CTCs in urban, suburban and rural areas, and will build consortia of community technology center and community network and professional IT associations, and joint community-education-library-university community service programs.  Many CTCs and CTC support organizations, community networks and university community service programs, including CTCNet Chicago, CTCNet national, and America Connects, have submitted consortium applications to undertake this statewide support activity.
  • A comprehensive Eliminate the Digital Divide bill, based on national model legislation developed by the IT Committee of the National Committee of Women Legislators, will be introduced in Illinois, including a major focus on workforce development. 

The next three years will see statewide advocacy be integrated with calls for additional Federal support.  For example, a proposed Digital Opportunity Information Trust includes plans for expansion of AmeriCorps and continued support from federal community technology programs.  The agenda includes: High Tech School to Work and Computer Recycling Program development, Illinois Century Network expansion in nine service areas to include community technology centers, information infrastructure and planning initiatives in rural and urban areas (including Digital Town Halls as part of public health, and safety emergency networks), CivicNet telecommunication infrastructure deployment in the City of Chicago and near suburbs, and development of public-private community plans for parties seeking $15 million in Digital Divide Infrastructure Funds and ICC-collected universal service-related funds for near-phoneless populations.

This is one model of how urban, suburban and rural CTC constituencies can come together to combine program development with advocacy in the regulatory and legislative arenas, while demonstrating effective use of funds to achieve "sustainability" support from a combination of public agencies, foundations, companies, individual contributions, and revenues for services which improve the quality of life of less connected residents, often characterized in regulatory/legislative language as the "bottom third of the phone market." This goal goes back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, in which Congress sought to define "public convenience and necessity" of connecting all residential, commercial and institutional parties through state regulatory crafting of competitive markets which would serve all markets, including effective competition in the bottom third of the phone market (which includes the bottom tenth of the phoneless and near-phoneless).  The goal is to assure that both private and cooperative private-public entities are working to provide effective and affordable information tools for every resident of the state of Illinois.

 Layton E. Olson is an attorney with Howe & Hutton, Ltd. and a director of Midwest Technology Access Group, Inc., the facilitator of a statewide cooperative consortium of community technology support organizations, linked with as a planned CTCNet Chicago and statewide Illinois portal.  As Midwest Director of City Innovation, he worked with DSSA/Neighborhood Learning Network since the original intervention with SBC.

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