Faster than a speeding locomotive:

BNSF partners with Lt. Governor Pat Quinn to offer better Internet connectivity to rural Illinois

 

by Mike Kroll

The Zephyr, Galesburg

 

The Lake Storey Pavilion was the scene of a press conference Wednesday morning where Illinois Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn and officials of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway announced a new partnership to offer inexpensive Internet connectivity to downstate communities along the BNSF rail line. The BNSF may soon be installing fiber optic data communication cable along its rail route between Galesburg and Chicago. The railroad is currently exploring a number of competing communications technologies but will invest an estimated $10 million to lay a 96-fiber cable if an agreement is reached between communities adjacent to the route in partnership with the Illinois Connect program's Broadband Development Council chaired by Quinn. Wednesday's  morning meeting was to introduce the concept of this project to local officials from Galesburg and other communities along the route to Chicago.

According to John Hicks of the BNSF, the railroad currently has no fiber running adjacent to its Illinois tracks but needs greater communication capability for its internal operations. Laying fiber optic cable is just one alternative, and the most costly alternative to the railroad, unless they can share both the higher expense and bandwidth. He told the group the railroad currently estimates an annual maintenance cost of about $1.44 million once the cable is laid and said that the BNSF would partner with an existing telecommunications company such as AT&T to construct and maintain the new fiber network. While the railroad's own needs could be met through a less costly and lower bandwidth approach such as microwave relay towers, the use of fiber optics would afford advantages to the railroad and every community that might participate in the project.

“This partnership could be an efficient and cost effective way to enhance the quality of life, increase public safety, and provide an additional tool for the business community,” said Quinn. “This is a rare opportunity for Illinois communities to partner with BNSF Railway to make their fiber network available to the citizens of Illinois. We are on the cusp of embarking on a major project that will virtually connect communities that are already literally connected through rail lines,” Quinn said.  “It makes sense to bridge the digital divide by building new networks along the pioneering railway tracks that have connected us for so long.”

Historically, many have noted the distinct absence of constitutional duties to disparage the need or role of the Lt. Governor in Illinois. However, reality is somewhat different. With the smallest staff and budget of any elected statewide office, Quinn is nonetheless among the busiest elected officials. With the war in Iraq raging and the resulting casualties, Quinn has spent much more time than most realize attending nearly all of the funerals of Illinois servicemen and women who have lost their lives in the conflict. But being the state's official representative to these funerals is on top of overseeing 17 programs and initiatives and numerous components of those programs. You can learn more about these varied programs by visiting Quinn's website, www.standingupforillinois.org.

The Broadband Deployment Council works with state agencies, local governments and community organization to help bring high-speed Internet to all Illinois communities. Governor Rod Blagojevich created the group and named Quinn as its chair. “In just the last few years we have seen a boom in Internet applications which have created new opportunities for economic development, education, public safety and civic engagement. It is clear that access to broadband Internet is the key to empowerment in the 21st century,” wrote Quinn this past April as he committed himself to addressing the needs of rural Illinois communities. The project is tied to two of the Lt. Governor’s long term programs, Illinois Main Street and the Rural Affairs Council.

Quinn has become a self-appointed “e-champion” for the state as he advocates a strategy of local or regional solutions rather than a statewide program to encourage widespread broadband development. The fear is that if downstate communities do not keep up with advances in Internet connectivity it will speed the decline of rural communities and hasten the already evident population shift to Illinois' urban areas.

In addition to Quinn and a delegation from the BNSF, the 50-60 people present included Galesburg Mayor Gary Smith and City Manager Gary Goddard, Tom Carper and Sal Garza of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Doug Wilson and Tina Anstrom of the United States Department of Agriculture, and Nona Myers of the Illinois Finance Authority. Representatives from a number of communities along the projected route were also in attendance, for this was the initial opportunity to meet and discuss the fiber optic connectivity project with officials from the BNSF. Notably absent was John Guiste, former Galesburg Risk Manager and a key player in developing this project to its current point. Guiste recently left Galesburg to take a new position near his home in Pennsylvania.

Irshad Ansari, president of NI Solutions and a key actor in this project, described his role as both an engineer and broker working to bring as many communities on board as possible. “This project is nothing less than the key to economic development and viability for many of the smaller communities in downstate Illinois. I am personally aware of at least two or three economic development opportunities that were lost to Galesburg specifically because of the absence of affordable high-capacity, high-speed bandwidth. (An assertion that was later confirmed by Sal Garza) We're not talking 1.5 megabit T1 connections but rather multiple gigabyte bandwidth such as is needed by large commercial entities today. Today. Galesburg just doesn't have the data capacity demanded by many large commercial business like a data center. Our purpose today is to facilitate a meeting of the minds to hopefully bring a coalition of eager partners to this project. A meeting about vision rather than nuts and bolts.”

“Infrastructure is always a key to economic development,” noted Garza. “Just like roads, rail, water, sewer and electricity — telecommunications or data bandwidth is often a qualifying characteristic for a business looking to locate in western Illinois. The ability of downstate Illinois to compete in this marketplace is heavily dependent upon our investment in such infrastructure. Without the capital spending bill that remains locked in the General Assembly, it is unclear where funds to assist projects such as this will come from. Most communities will need participation from the state to make a project like this financially feasible, and it just isn't clear when the state will have the necessary funds available.”

Quinn is committed to projects like this. “We all realize that in the 21st century, access to the information super highway is becoming indispensable. My office wants to insure that such access is available to all the residents of this state, everybody in and nobody left out. This would be a first in the nation project that will serve as a model for improved broadband access across downstate Illinois. This opportunity is too important for too many reasons not to make sure this project becomes a reality and as soon as possible. One of the goals of my office of Rural Affairs is to help bring more real jobs with good pay and the benefits necessary to support a family in downstate towns across Illinois.”