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Sunday, September 09, 2018 1:00 am

The internet's slow lane

Officials in rural areas say lack of high-speed jeopardizes their future

RON SHAWGO | The Journal Gazette

Broadband service

While most Indiana urban and suburban areas have access to high-speed internet, rural areas are lacking.

County Rural population With broadband*
Adams 18,998 74.5%
Allen 44,900 58.8%
DeKalb 18,159 40.3%
Huntington 18,710 48.4%
Kosciusko 37,127 61.1%
LaGrange 35,822 27.2%
Noble 32,512 39.4%
Steuben 23,107 53.2%
Wabash 16,403 27.2%
Wells 14,131 37.0%
Whitley 23,803 44.8%

*Fixed 25 Mbps/3 Mbps``

Source: Federal Communications Commission`

Brook Barker considers himself in “no man's land,” with broadband to the west and east but falling a couple of miles short of his rural Huntington County home.

Barker, who lives between Markle and Huntington with his wife and 14-year-old daughter, has internet service with a “not terrible” speed of 10 megabits per second. Buffering during a streamed movie or when his daughter is doing homework is an irritant and a reminder of what's possible, he said.

“With this being the infancy of a lot of stuff happening – everything going online, everything going to digital content,” what about the future? he asked. “In my opinion, this is just the beginning of what's going on with the digital age.”

Thousands of rural residents, schools and businesses lack a fast internet connection that experts say is a necessity in a modern world. An estimated 42 percent of Indiana's rural areas are without high-speed internet service, though some authorities believe the rate is much higher.

The federal standard for broadband is 25 Mbps for downloading – far greater than Barker's 10 Mbps – and 3 Mbps for uploading.

In northeast Indiana, LaGrange, Noble, Wells and Wabash counties are among 20 counties with the lowest broadband coverage rate. More than 70 percent of rural residents in LaGrange and Wabash counties lack broadband, according to state figures for December 2016, the most current.

A new Purdue University study identifies about $12 billion in net benefits if the broadband investment were made statewide. Benefits can be found in telemedicine, education, business investment and general economic development, farm income, civic engagement and property values, the report states.

“From a societal perspective, the rural broadband investment is clearly quite attractive. However, the anticipated revenue from customers would not be adequate to cover the total system costs, so some form of external assistance would be needed to incentivize the investments,” the study says.

To move things along, the state has named a director of broadband opportunities and last week announced $100 million in grants for rural broadband providers. Scott Rudd, the new director, said it is one of the largest, if not the largest, investment any state has made in rural broadband.

How far that money will stretch is unclear. Initial costs of laying wire or fiber or installing a wireless connection is in the billions if not higher. Rudd said he has seen cost estimates of $20,000 to $60,000 per mile.

Some rural electric membership cooperatives are taking the lead in expanding rural broadband as they did 80 years ago with electricity. The Indiana Electric Cooperatives, which commissioned the Purdue study and represents 38 rural electric cooperatives, filed a position paper with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission in June.

“Little effort is needed to compare the importance of investing in electric infrastructure in the 1930s with the importance of investing in broadband infrastructure today,” it states, “and as we were able to invest in necessary infrastructure to power rural Indiana then, Indiana's electric cooperatives are uniquely positioned to leverage existing infrastructure investments to bring high-speed internet to rural communities across Indiana today.”

In a letter to the IURC, Ron Raypole, president and CEO of Noble REMC, said young people are moving from rural Indiana to larger cities that have broadband.

Real estate brokers say houses aren't selling without high-speed internet, Raypole said.

“As you know, it is a very expensive endeavor to get fiber to the home when you have less than eight homes per mile,” he wrote. “If we continue to sit on our laurels hoping that someone else will eventually provide broadband to our rural communities, we will continue to see our population decline at unprecedented rates.”

In a phone interview, Raypole said his REMC has not yet decided whether to play a role in broadband deployment.

“The reason is, it's a huge financial commitment,” he said. “We're talking tens of millions of dollars for our area.” The state money won't cover a lot if split among the state's 38 REMCs, “but it is a start. We're happy about the news and we are looking for federal assistance as well and local community assistance.”

The IURC has been tasked by lawmakers to study rural broadband deployment and determine if the Indiana Universal Service Fund, a phone line surcharge, should be used to help pay for the expansion.

Barker, 54, is among about 150 people statewide who emailed comments to the IURC. Most ask for better internet service.

“After complaining for 7 months and filing a complaint with the Indiana Regulatory Commission, I was finally able to get service 24 hours a day,” reads one. “Previously I was not able to get service from approximately 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Currently the service is very slow and can not always get good service. We need quality high speed internet service for all areas especially since East Noble School Corporation students must do their schoolwork online.”

Comments from northeast Indiana also came from a Butler city councilman and the Columbia City mayor asking for reliable service.

“The largest deterrent to progress and growth in rural communities is (and will continue to be) broadband infrastructure,” wrote Columbia City Mayor Ryan L. Daniel, who foresees cities creating their own fiber utilities. “It is as important to residents as Sewer and Water, as unconscionable as that sounds.”

Indiana Electric Cooperatives say current federal methodology undercounts the rural residents without high-speed broadband. Rudd, the state's director of broadband opportunities, agrees the data aren't perfect.

“One of my charges is to improve that data, to get a more granular look at true speed availability in Indiana, and that's not an easy thing to do,” he said.

Development of the state grant program is just getting underway, and better numbers will allow dollars to be focused where most needed, he added.

“I think it affects every man, woman and child, business and utility in the state,” he said of the importance of broadband. “Particularly hardest hit are those in rural areas that have little to no access, and I think that's why the administration is so interested in taking a bold step to help those rural communities play a more transformative role in their own future.”

rshawgo@jg.net