Chicago Universities to Advance Broadband Equity Through $3.25 Million Grant

Chicago Universities to Advance Broadband Equity Through $3.25 Million Grant

BroadbandCHICAGO (May 22, 2023) – Today, Chicago State University (CSU), Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU), University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Northern Illinois University (NIU), the Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) and others held a launch event for a digital equity project. The project received $3.25 million in funding under the Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program within the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The pilot program, with CSU as the primary investigator and assistance from IIN, will tackle the digital disparity in communities that have endured historic segregation and disinvestment. The launch event featured speakers from CSU, NEIU, the University of Illinois System, NTIA, Chicago Urban League, Instituto del Progreso Latino, the City of Chicago, Cook County, and IIN.

The program, named Advancing Broadband Equity through Learning Intermediaries in the Neighborhoods of Chicago (ABE-LINC), will tackle the digital divide by expanding broadband, distributing laptops and improving digital literacy through navigators conducting community outreach and training. In Chicago, over 15% of households don’t have access to internet or internet-enabled devices including laptop computers, tablets, or smartphones, which impacts families’ ability to access education and workplace opportunities.

“Chicago State University welcomes the opportunity to support equitable access to  critical digital resources to our community,” said CSU President Zaldwaynaka Scott. “This grant allows CSU to use our campus resources, faculty expertise and partnerships to help bridge the digital divide long experienced by communities on Chicago's South Side. By working with our partner institutions, we are increasing access to opportunities and resources for our students and neighbors that are critical to success in today's digital world.”


Building Broadband Access & Literacy

Together, CSU and NEIU will run the digital navigator program that will provide training on basic digital literacy, digital conduct, online resources and tools, and internet subscriptions and device purchases. The navigators will come from and target specific Zip codes and populations, including returning citizens, seasonal transitory and undocumented workers, and single parents. The navigators will also provide laptops to households of priority neighborhoods to fill gaps in the ability to access telehealth resources and educational and employment opportunities.

“Northeastern Illinois University is thrilled to serve our communities through the ABELINC project, which will train families on the many ways they can thrive in the digital world,” NEIU President Gloria J. Gibson said. “As the longest-standing four-year public Hispanic-Serving Institution in the Midwest, Northeastern is poised to share this opportunity with our partners and all of Chicago to grow in digital literacy and assist in the prosperity of local small businesses.”

“We are excited to work with our academic partners on this project that will help address the digital divide and deliver vital resources, knowledge and skills to the diverse communities our institutions serve,” UIC interim Chancellor Javier Reyes said. “Breaking down barriers and inequalities involving access to information and resources is a critical step, both economically and socially, for businesses and residents to progress in our digital world.”

The grant will also build and improve broadband capacity at CSU by connecting the institution’s fiber-optic network to the statewide fiber-optic network. Internet speeds on campus and in the neighboring communities will increase significantly. This will allow CSU to serve as the informational hub for resources related to social, economic, and educational missions of our partners. NIU’s Department of Public Administration and UIC’s Great Cities Institute will provide additional expertise for the program.

“One of the things that the pandemic brought into sharp focus is just how deep the digital divide is and what a negative impact that has on communities of color,” said NIU President Dr. Lisa Freeman. “So we are excited to continue our collaboration with Chicago State University as part of this multi-university effort aimed at promoting digital equity for Illinois households, businesses, and communities. NIU looks forward to working with this project's many stakeholders to help transform Chicago's South Side neighborhoods.”


What They Are Saying

“This funding is a significant step towards addressing the digital disparity that has plagued historically disinvested neighborhoods,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). “In a time when digital connectivity is increasingly integral to education and workforce participation, we must leave no one behind. Chicago State University will spearhead this vital endeavor, ensuring neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side have the necessary means to thrive in today’s world.”

"The ABELINC program is a pivotal move in closing Chicago's digital divide. This collaboration, backed by a $3.25 million federal grant, goes beyond providing technology - it emphasizes digital literacy and empowerment, investing in our people and communities for a shared prosperous future." – Congressman Jonathan L.  Jackson (IL - 1)

“Chicago’s South and West sides have some of the lowest home broadband connection rates in our city, leaving youth and students without the digital access they need for a high-quality education and access to job opportunities. So I am thrilled to celebrate the cohort of Chicago universities that was awarded millions in funding to tackle digital disparities in historically disinvested communities, and I look forward to continued collaboration between the Chicago Digital Equity Coalition and Chicago State University to close the digital divide once and for all,” said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.

“The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the crucial need for all Illinoisans to have access to broadband,” said State Senator Elgie R. Sims, Jr. (IL - 17) “High-speed internet is at the forefront of all parts of life – from work to school, and everything in between. We must mend the digital divide facing far too many communities in Illinois. This helps us move toward our goal to greater inclusivity and accessibility.”

"Closing the digital divide is essential to increase the economic and educational opportunities for families, students and individuals alike," said State Representative Nicholas Smith (IL-34). "This funding will help to uplift left-behind communities and allow them to take advantage of new technologies and integrate into the digital world." 

“The Illinois Office of Broadband and Illinois Broadband Lab are thrilled to join this team led by Chicago State to improve digital equity in Chicago,” said Matt Schmit, director of the Illinois Office of Broadband. “The ABE-LINC project is critical to bring access and digital skills to people who are currently being excluded from the 21st century economy. ABE-LINC will inform additional digital equity programs that we plan to offer in Chicago and throughout Illinois in the coming years.”

"Individuals in minority communities face numerous disadvantages, which can be worsened by a lack of access to technology,” said Loren Williams of PCs for People. “Our team at PCs for People is committed to tackling this issue by repurposing used computers from businesses and making them available at an affordable price to low-income customers. Additionally, we employ innovative internet solutions to provide high-speed internet to underserved communities. We are proud to be part of the Connecting Minority Communities Program to increase broadband access and create internet opportunities for everyone.”



Along with CSU, NEIU, UIC, NIU, and IIN, local partners of the grant include Governors State University, Chicago Urban League, City Colleges of Chicago, Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology, Instituto del Progreso Latino, Chicago Commons, Cook County Sheriff’s Department, PCs for People, and Safer Foundation. The Illinois Innovation Network (IIN) invited collaborators and guided development of the project proposal.


About Chicago State University

Chicago State University, founded in 1867, is the oldest public university in the Chicago Metropolitan area. The University’s five colleges offer over 70 undergraduate and graduate degree-granting and non-degree programs. CSU is committed to equity in education, serving as the only U.S. Department of Education-designated four-year Predominantly Black Institution in Illinois and ranked by a Harvard economist in the top 4% of public and private universities nationwide in supporting our graduates’ economic mobility. The University serves as a prominent civic space on the greater South Side of Chicago by hosting a multitude of athletic, educational, cultural, and recreational activities. The University is located near public transit that provides convenient access to the campus. For more information, visit here.


About the Illinois Innovation Network

The Illinois Innovation Network, which is led by the University of Illinois System, is a group of 15 hubs across the state working to drive inclusive innovation and economic and workforce development across the state. Hubs, most of which are based at public universities, use a combination of research, public-private partnerships, entrepreneurship, and workforce training programs to spur inclusive economic development in their regions and across the state.