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Roundtable Reaffirms Rural Broadband Challenges, Opportunities

Broadband investment is expensive. To serve rural customers, providers say incentives are necessary. (Steve Burns, WTIU/WFIU News)

Leaders from several rural electric cooperatives across Indiana met with state leaders and Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch to discuss broadband.

A Purdue study found there is $4 return on every dollar invested in broadband, but challenges remain. 

Currently, around one in ten Hoosiers don’t have access to reliable broadband internet, acccording to indsutry research group, BroadbandNow.

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.

State leaders dedicated $270 million to the NextLevel connections fund announced by Gov. Eric Holcomb last year, yet providers say more funding is needed to make future builds possible. 

Rural broadband investment is a critical part of President Joe Biden’s federal infrastructure plan. Crouch, a Republican, says many fellow Hoosier Republicans support additional federal broadband investments.      

"The bill hasn’t come before them, but in conversations with our Congressional delegation they are all supportive [of rural broadband]," Crouch said.

suzanne crouch
Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch with the Director of the Indiana Broadband Office Scott Rudd. (Brandon Smith, IPB News)

Roberto Gallardo is the Director of Purdue’s Center for Regional Development, and author of that correlated broadband to broad economic benefits. 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 esetablished 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 said “a significant amount of state and local dollars appear to be headed this way.”

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.

Multiple Hoosier Republicans have been hesistant to publically support the President's entire infrastructure plan, though broadband investments are less controversial. 

Notably absent from the conversation were large, for-profit providers that serve the majority of the state’s customers.  

Most experts agree without significantly more funding, improvements will be only be incremental.

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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