SALINE COUNTY -- Foot by foot and road by road, Shawnee Communications continues to bring broadband internet services to rural locations in Saline County and elsewhere.
It's a beautiful spring morning, and Shawnee Communications Sales & Marketing Manager Andy Henderson meets with BKW Services Inc. President Kevin Wenthe at a work site along Winkleman Road. As a machine at one end bores deep through the soil, another crew member unspools what looks like a semi-flexible orange pipe from the other. The duct, the orange pipe, allows for an easier installation, Henderson explains.
"As the hole is bored, the duct is pulled through the hole. It makes it easier to install the fiber inside the duct, and gives it a measure of protection," Henderson says.
Conditions under the soil make the installation a challenge, Wenthe adds.
"There is bedrock that occurs at various points, quite frequently," Wenthe said. "Sometimes it's thin enough we can go through it, but other times we have to bring a rock-breaking machine to the site."
On a good two days, a crew will get 300 feet of fiber-optic cable installed.
The high-speed fiber-optic cable installation is part of a public-private partnership with the state of Illinois to provide broadband services to underserved rural locations. Henderson said Shawnee Communications is the only company south of Interstate 64 that applied for grants to offset the installation costs.
"We applied for grants for three locations, thinking if we were fortunate, we'd get one," Henderson said. "We were pleasantly surprised to get all three approved."
Besides the Mitchellsville/Rudement area of the southern end of Saline County, Shawnee Communications received grant funding for Pulleys Mill and Goreville in Williamson County and Vienna and Buncombe in Johnson County.
The entire project comes with a price tag of $22 million, $15 million of which comes from Shawnee Communications' investment. The state is providing another $7 million through Gov. JB Pritzker's $400 million Connect Illinois program, which was funded by the 2019 Capital Development initiative.
Connect Illinois' goal is to have statewide high-speed broadband internet service available statewide by 2028. Shawnee Communications' current venture will make high-speed internet a reality for more than 2,550 households in the six communities where it is being installed.
Henderson said Shawnee Communications is optimistic that installation will be finished by the end of the year.
"It takes some time, but in the end, it will be worth it," Henderson said.
With improvements in broadband technology, consumers are able to obtain service from a distance of up to about 10 miles from a network's "central office," Henderson said.
Besides the length of time needed to install fiber-optic cable, weather is a significant factor in the speed of installation, Wenthe, who's from Effingham, said.
"We've hardly gotten a full day of work in yet," he said.
The project began in February, and a heavy snow delayed the rollout.
"Then that snow melted, so the ground was saturated, and we've had above-average rains," Wenthe, who's been in the business 30 years, said.
Working on some narrow country roads also means occasional road blockages when equipment has to move, Wenthe said, but the neighbors are fairly tolerant.
"Usually when they find out why we're out here working, they're pretty understanding," he said. "A lot of people are glad we're installing this."