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Legislation Hasn’t Solved Indiana’s Rural Broadband Problem, But REMCs Might

David Phelps is the Director of Technology for Brown County Schools. (James Vavrek, WFIU/WTIU News)

David Phelps is a lifelong Brown County resident. To say he knows this area would be an understatement.

“I’ve lived here all my life, I went to school here, graduated high school here,” he says. “Other than college and maybe a year or so out of college, I’ve always lived here. And even in those years I was still working here.”

The south-central Indiana county is defined by rolling hills, quaint shops, and picturesque fall landscapes. Phelps says it’s what’s kept him here for so long.

“I live on five acres right now, and it’s nice to have wooded areas behind me and space for our dogs to run and space for my kids to be able to play,” he says.

But the rural setting does come with some drawbacks. It makes getting reliable, high-speed internet challenging.

Despite a number of bills introduced at the Statehouse, billions in grant dollars, and plenty of rhetoric, broadband internet access in rural parts of Indiana lags behind suburban and urban areas.

Barriers To Expanding Broadband Access

Traditional carriers providing internet to most Hoosiers say it’s tough to serve rural areas because residents are more spread out and the terrain makes building the necessary infrastructure more expensive.

The lack of broadband is causing rural Indiana to lag behind.

And it’s not just an issue Phelps experiences firsthand. He’s also the Director of Technology for the Brown County School District, where he talks to parents and students who are also frustrated.

While the district equips each student with a laptop, that doesn’t necessarily mean they have access to the technology they need. Phelps estimates half of students in the district do not have a reliable internet connection in their homes

“Just within the past two weeks, I’ve had a couple parents or a student that has contacted us saying, ‘I don’t have access at home so I need to make sure that I can do this here. Can you show me how to download a video so I can view it while I’m at home?'” Phelps says. “We have to teach students how to do extra things that they wouldn’t ordinarily have to do if they had access at home.”

Brown County’s access to reliable, broadband Internet is one of the worst in the state. According to BroadbandNow, a for-profit data company that measures internet access across the country, just over one third of Brown County residents have access to broadband internet.

Indiana Broadband Map

 

But it’s truly a statewide problem. Twenty percent of Hoosiers only have access to service thorugh one provider. They say there is a lack of competition across the state, and that hurts consumers.

BroadbandNow Director of Content Jameson Zimmer says the lack of competition across the state hurts consumers.

“Any private company, it’s basically their job to secure their market position and make as much money as possible,” he says. “And so long as internet is treated as a luxury, rather than like a utility it sucks its certainly not how I would like things to be.”

He says its common to have lobbyists from large telecom companies flood into government meetings when these debates occur.

“If they can send a bunch of lobbyists into a room and come back out with a bill that’s written basically to grant them exclusive access to an area,” he says. “If they don’t do it, the other guy is going to do it.”

Energy Cooperatives Seek To Fill The Need

While rural areas of the state continue to struggle accessing broadband, one REMC in South Central Indiana is trying changing that.

South Central Indiana Rural Electric Membership Coalition began bringing service to its seven-county region in the 1930s. Traditional electric providers didn’t want to serve rural areas of the state because they couldn’t make a profit.

The Rural Electrification Act changed that when it began incentivizing companies to enter less profitable areas. The influx of federal dollars paved the way for REMCs.

SCI President James Tanneberger says he believes his organization is situated to meet the needs of some of the most underserved Hoosiers.

SCI announced earlier this month they would begin building out broadband infrastructure to serve their entire coverage area with internet by 2021. They plan to offer from 50 megabits per second up to 1 gigabite /second.

“So many folks don’t have any kind of high speed,” Tanneberger says. “They don’t even have cable or DSL in many cases in our area.  So those folks are just ecstatic.”

Phelps estimates half of students in the district do not have a reliable internet connection available in in their homes. (James Vavrek, WFIU/WTIU)

Tanneberger says the customers in the first phase of the rollout should have service by the end of the year.

He believes the REMC will provide more than just internet service.

“This is hope,” he says. “Hope that the revenues from this we bring in some additional economic development that helps us manage, and hopefully even lower rates.”

But that hope comes with an expensive price tag. Tanneberger estimates the project will cost more than $80 million.

He plans to use existing savings, take advantage of low-interest loans from the United States Department of Agriculture, and says SCI will be exploring other grant opportunities as they become available. But he’s not optimistic.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of conversation about rural broadband,” Tanneberger says.  “But, when you really get down to it, entities like us are wanting to try to do it, we’re doing it solely on our own.”

Failed Legislative Efforts To Address The Problem

Rep. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington) says that became clear during this year’s legislative session.

Many lawmakers praised Indiana House Bill 1065, which provided incentives for carriers to enter rural areas of the state. But Pierce, who voted for the bill, voiced his concerns in the session’s final hour.

As legislators scrambled to put the finishing touches on many bills, Pierce told his peers in the Indiana House why he wasn’t as bullish about this bill’s impact. He hasn’t changed that perspective.

“Programs have been created over and over by the legislature and they never fund them,” he says. “One, they’re not serious about it, and two, the major carriers fear competition coming in. Otherwise, why would they put a provision into the bill that says no out-of-state companies can come and apply for the grant?”

He agrees REMCs could be one answer but says many of the grants—even if funding is allocated—won’t go to providers seeking to serve rural areas. That’s because of the classification strategies that carriers use to determine whether or not an area receives service.

Both Pierce and Zimmer say providers self-report the areas they serve. For small providers the process is costly, but Zimmer says large providers often take advantage of the system that is rarely subject to oversight. He says providers often say they provide service to an area that in reality does not receive service.

“The problem we see is that there’s no real incentive set up for providers to report accurately,” Zimmer says. “Because why would they want to reveal their hand to the next player? It’s all about territory building, so it’s not really in their interest to cough up perfect information.”

SCI’s $84 million project will begin this summer. (James Vaverick- WFIU/WTIU)

Pierce agrees, and says current legislation and grants incentive providers to do just that.

“This is part of the problem, all of these bills are written to say that you can’t come into an area that is already receiving service with these grants, and they’ve written in there that any technology counts as service,” he says. “Essentially [what it] means is that I could be in a rural area in one of those census blocks and I could have some marginal cell phone service that could allow some data.”

Authors of such legislation say the bills have to be written in that way to ensure people without any service are prioritized. They also say it is important to have established providers and not new companies that could go out of business.

Pierce, however, isn’t convinced. He says believes creative solutions should be taken.

“I think it’s simple enough to say that internet is a necessity,” Pierce says.“The legislature and the governor should do everything they can to make sure that every resident of our state has access to adequate broadband.”

Phelps can relate. He’s not on an unlimited data plan for his phone, which is problematic when you don’t have reliable internet.

“I’m running out of data every month,” he says. “Like right now I think I’m at 8 percent of my data is remaining with eight days remaining.”

Phelps says the frustration is enough to make his family consider picking up and moving.

“When is it that point that we just need to kind of move somewhere else to get the access that we need?” he says. “I’ve never really been away from this place all that much. A decision to move would be a very big one.”

At least for now, Phelps says he’s holding out hope and staying put.

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