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Monroe Co. Broadband Build Could Be Model For Future Investment

Spools of fiber cable for connect residents to reliable internet, but build costs are expensive. (Steve Burns, WTIU/WFIU News)

Some residents in Monroe County were finally connected this week. The project announced last year is expected to link 3,400 customers to fiber internet.

A partnership between the area’s REMC and Smithville Fiber made it possible.

Scott Rudd, the state’s Director of Broadband Office under Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch (R-IN) says projects like this one could be used as a blueprint across the state and country.

“Come[ing] together in the interest of these homeowners and businessowners and the other 3,400 some homeowners, [and] Putting aside some of those competitive aspects is truly tremendous and really groundbreaking,” he said.

Around 1 in 10 Hoosiers don’t have access to reliable broadband internet. 

Poor connections make e-learning, remote work and Zoom calls to grandparents nearly impossible. While a plethora of bills and millions of dollars in investment have tried to solve the problem, many Hoosiers are left buffering.

Rudd says without the public private partnership, it could have taken some customers in portions of Owen and Monroe Counties years to have reliable internet.

“There may have been no other way to make this possible in the next decade, perhaps,” he said Monday.

Studies Reveal Significant Broadband Return On Investment

Investments like these pay for themselves, experts say. Roberto Gallardo is the Director of Purdue’s Center for Regional Development. He believes the data is clear.

“[We] found on average, a $4 return for every dollar invested,” he said. “The two main drivers were telehealth—that's pre-COVID—and adult education—those two were really driving that ROI. It is worth it.”

Policymakers at the state and federal levels have taken notice. For years, Indiana has worked to create the regulatory environment to incentivize builds. This session, nearly a half dozen bills have a chance to be passed before the general assembly concludes its work.

Among those is Senate Bill 377, which establishes a state broadband connectivity grant program for providers.  It passed both chambers with significant bipartisan support. One the author’s, Eric Koch, has been working on the issue for decades, and believes one major hurdle could soon be cleared.

“Fortunately, that financial obstacle—which is the impediment particularly to rural broadband— looks like we finally may be able to bridge it.”

Koch says “a significant amount of state and local dollars appear to be headed this way.”

A sizeable portion is expected from President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan.

Biden’s plan includes a proposed $100 billion in broadband investments, but the details are unclear just how much of those funds will go to unserved areas.

Either way, for residents like Peter Gould — who spoke out in favor of the project before it was first approved — any momentum is positive.

“All of the neighbors on our road, Kerr Creek Road, improvise,” he said when the project was first announced. Gould was using a thumb drive to connect to his home internet router.

He says his connection varied between 2 to 4 megabits per second—speeds well below the 25/3 the generally accepted definition of broadband speed.

To make matters worse, he admits he routinely runs out of data.

Gallardo believes the pandemic has accelerated development and public consciousness, but says the real work must start now.

“So, what can we do to make it work?” he asked. “We can't just say, Well, you know, the ROI is not there, good luck. It's going to have to be public private partnership[s], there's no other way,” he said.

Gallardo hopes the Biden administration incentives these types of partnerships to make builds like this one with SCI REMC and Smithville a lot more common.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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