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Reliable, scalable internet access is critical to the growth and economic development of rural communities across northwest Illinois and the country as a whole, Jesse Shekleton, Jo-Carroll Energy’s director of broadband operations, said during a recent Senate hearing on rural broadband. Shekleton and other panel members called for prioritizing scalable, future-proof networks and symmetrical speeds as well as revisions to the requirements and processes in USDA funding programs for future rounds of federal broadband funding in their testimony before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee on Rural Development and Energy.

“Consumer and technology demands for increased internet speeds continue to grow and are trending toward a need for multi-gigabit service by 2030,” Shekleton said. “Prioritizing symmetrical speeds and network technologies that are scalable will ensure that rural and remote areas are able to meet consumer needs now and into the future.”

With the help of funding from the USDA’s ReConnect and Community Connect grant programs, Jo-Carroll has been able to expand its broadband footprint and today serves nearly 4,000 fiber broadband members and growing.

After starting in 2009 with fixed wireless service, Jo-Carroll has pivoted to building a fiber-only network after determining that fiber “is the most effective and economic technology to provide robust broadband to our rural communities,” Shekleton said. “Fiber allows us to ensure that the investments we make in this network today will be able to meet existing and future utility needs as well as improve the economic outlook and quality of life in the rural communities we serve.”
Fiber enables the cooperative as a utility to better manage member-consumer demands for electric and natural gas service during peak times, as well as expand other smart grid offering to members, according to Shekleton. 

“Improved connectivity also provides a massive benefit to one of the largest economic sectors in Illinois – agriculture,” he continued. “Precision agriculture has grown in recent years with farmers and ranchers leveraging a wide range of connected devices to reduce input costs and improve yields. As precision and smart ag technologies expand to include autonomous tractors, soil sampling or field mapping, demands for bandwidth on the farm will continue to grow, underscoring why a robust and scalable connection is essential.”

In response to questions from the panel about minimum acceptable broadband speeds Shekleton said, “We need to standardize a definition and finally move forward with what we have been talking about as a scalable and future-proof solution. If we are only looking at what is in front of us and simply meeting the needs of today, are we really giving consideration to the innovation and ingenuity of the American people? I don’t think we are.”

Looking to the future, Shekleton pointed to the trends and data that scale out to the need for multi-gigabyte speeds by 2030. “That is absolutely something that can happen and become a reality,” he said. “When we say future proof, we need to make sure we invest wisely with these tax dollars, and if this is truly a once in a generation opportunity with this funding, then we have one opportunity to get it right.”