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Buffering: Rural Hoosiers Without Internet Hope State Grants Will Help

Crews install fiber cable on power lines along Brown County's northern county line. (Brock Turner, WTIU/WFIU News)

When Governor Eric Holcomb announced his $1 billion infrastructure plan, most people were talking about Interstate 69's advanced completion date or more nonstop international flights out of Indianapolis.

The plan also includes $100 million to incentivize telecommunications companies to bring broadband service to rural areas. 

Estimates put the number of Hoosiers without a reliable internet connection at 93,000, costing the state billions in lost economic opportunities. 

Many Hoosiers Struggle To Find Reliable Internet Service

About one out of every ten Hoosiers living in rural counties cannot access the internet from their homes. Among them is Shea Keller.

Shea is a senior at Brown County High School, where every student gets a laptop through a new initiative designed to prepare kids for the 21st century.

The issue Keller faces is how to get her work done when she’s at home – where she doesn’t have a reliable internet connection.

"Usually I have to travel to either my grandparent’s house down the road or my uncles house," Keller says. "If their internet is down then I travel to Van Buren Elementary—which is just down the road, like five minutes away and I’ll sit in the car and do homework."

Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch debuted a map this summer outlining broadband coverage. It painted a clearer picture of where coverage gaps exist, but it’s likely not entirely accurate.

Broadband maps rely on data carriers to self-report, and carriers typically report covering an entire census block even if some customers within that block don't have service.

Purdue University Professor Roberto Gallardo says the data is fundamentally flawed.

"It’s not that we’re shooting in the dark, but we don’t have accurate data and it’s hard to validate that data," he says.  "I hope that the next step is, ‘Okay, let the providers keep reporting that at the federal level, but at the state level, let’s validate that data."

But industry leaders say access is only part of the problem. The other consideration is adoption: whether Hoosiers will sign up for the service if it becomes available.

Indiana Broadband and Technology Association President John Koppin says in a lot of places where broadband is available, adoption is poor. 

"[Carriers] are counting on a take-rate of 50 percent," Koppin says. "[If they] get 10 percent ... it then does not incentivize them to build the next mile."

Building that last mile is important. Without it, many Hoosiers in rural areas are left without service. 

But it’s expensive, ranging from $35,000 to well over $50,000 per mile. If the expected adoption rate isn’t achieved, providers could lose millions.

Dave Brodin is the COO at Smithville Fiber. The company’s territory includes a lot of rural areas. He’s hopeful Smithville can take advantage of the state grant program, but in the past he says incentive programs haven’t been worth the additional regulatory costs.

Smithville Fiber crews work in Monroe County to expand their current fiber footprint.  Fiber can currently handle 100 gigabits of data per second. (Steve Burns, WTIU/WFIU News)

Crews from Smithville Fiber work to install fiber optic cable in a Monroe County neighborhood. (Steve Burns, WTIU/WFIU News)

"You have to compare the hoops you have to jump through to get the grant versus funding it ourselves," he says. "So, we ended up just funding the builds ourselves."

State officials, including the new Director of Broadband Opportunities Scott Rudd, are working with industry leaders and state agencies to plan how the $100 million will be disseminated, and when. 

One possible vehicle for expanding internet coverage is rural electric cooperatives.

They were formed about 75 years ago to bring electricity to rural America. In Indiana, they now serve more than 1.3 million people.

Many of them are looking at the future and thinking they could have similar success with the internet. 

Indiana Electric Cooperatives Vice President of Government Relations Scott Bowers estimates REMCs have invested $300 million in broadband infrastructure in Indiana. 

"The cooperative is typically going to try and provide the service to all of their members or make it available to all of their members," he says. "That creates a different dynamic as opposed to just being able to identify a specific area and go, ‘ok we’re going to offer to this because it makes as it relates to the return on investment.'"

One such REMC is in Shea Keller's county. 

SCI REMC, serves a large portion of Brown County. The co-op is currently building a network that will take fiber to the last mile. Previously no other provider would enter the area. It’s an $80 million investment that could finally help Keller access the internet from home.

In the meantime, she has to continue with her routine. While the lack of internet at her home presents a challenge, it's all she’s ever known.

"Once you get used to it, it becomes a lot easier," Keller says. "It makes me a better student, because I can really rely on myself that way."

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