Rural broadband analysis to be released

COLUMBUS, Ind. — An analysis revealing where rural broadband Internet service is most needed in Bartholomew County is expected to be released within a matter of days.

Created from survey information provided to Dr. Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, the analysis should also spell out the need for rural broadband internet, said Bartholomew County commissioner Tony London.

“I think (Gallardo’s recommendations) will contain eye-opening information that will shock a lot of people,” said London, who also serves as chairman of the Bartholomew County Broadband Initiative Committee.

Preliminary details indicates well over 2,000 Bartholomew County residents took the survey from early December until Jan. 4, London said. That is reportedly a much higher number than many comparable-sized Indiana counties.

About 25% of those who took the survey said they have no home internet, while roughly 60% said they are not happy with their service, the commissioner said. He added that the largest complaint was that their internet service is too slow, making eLearning and working from home more difficult or impossible, London said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived nearly a year ago, children and adults have been using their home internet for education and work. As a result, county and state lawmakers have been under pressure to expand high-speed broadband services to all rural areas.

At the state level, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb is asking for an additional $100 million for his Next Level Broadband Grant program, which began in 2018. In addition, state lawmakers are considering 17 new bills dealing with broadband, with the emphasis on both expansion and higher speeds, London said.

Two bills were introduced by State Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, whose district includes five townships in Bartholomew County. One is Senate Bill 359, which permits a unit of local government to finance broadband projects through the issuance of taxable or tax exempt bonds to be repaid by a broadband provider. The other is Senate Bill 264, which calls for a statewide broadband capacity infrastructure study.

On Thursday, several Bartholomew County government officials met to discuss what hurdles local internet providers are facing, and how county government can help them overcome those challenges, the commissioner said.

“We’re saying to providers: ‘Look … Bartholomew County needs you. How can we help you?’,” London said. “We are no longer coming at it from a standpoint of ‘should we do this?’”

Bartholomew County currently lags behind Brown and Jackson counties, who have rural electric cooperatives that also provide internet.

“But the board at Bartholomew County REMC has made it pretty clear that’s not a direction they are going,” London said.

However, London said he’s not criticizing REMC. London strongly commended Bartholomew County REMC for being extremely helpful to his committee. In fact, the cooperative’s CEO, Courtney Metzger, serves on the Broadband Initiative Committee.

In addition, London said the local electrical cooperative is expected to play a huge role in broadband expansion by allowing a future provider to have access to their poles.

“They are moving mountains to make all that engineering available and as affordable as possible,” London said. “But it is a huge jump to go from providing electricity to providing internet. It’s scary, with a lot of unknowns.”

In addition, it made economic sense for Jackson County REMC to provide rural broadband because they have roughly twice as many members as Bartholomew County’s rural electric cooperative, he said.

Another hurdle comes from the establishment of census blocks, the smallest geographical unit for which the U.S. Census Bureau publishes sample data.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission states that if there is one home in your census block with high-speed broadband internet, all homes within that census block are considered served, and therefore ineligible from receiving federal assistance to acquire high-speed internet.

In London’s case, his home is considered served by high-speed broadband because it’s in the same census block as a small cluster of homes two miles away that offer gig speed through fiber optics.

“That’s a situation not just here in Bartholomew County, but all across the country,” the commissioner said.

The mixture of both eastern flatlands and western hills means rural broadband service will require a good amount of expensive digging west of town, London said.

But these are examples of challenges that both state and county governments hope to address in order to lure a rural broadband internet provider to serve rural Bartholomew County, he said.

“We have already started conversations with providers on how we can get started,” London said. “I anticipate a lot of activity in the next few months.”