INDIANAPOLIS – Lawmakers support Gov. Eric Holcomb's $100 million Next Level Connections broadband grant program – but with some fine-tuning.
The administration is getting close to announcing its first awards in late July – with several applications that would benefit northeast Indiana, including Allen County.
But legislators this spring passed a bill effective Aug. 1 that will shift the focus of future rounds of funding to unserved rural areas rather than underserved cities.
“It became clear (the administration) was going to try to spend the rest of the money to improve underserved areas, which was very broad in definition,” said Sen. Mark Messmer, R-Jasper. “We would have ended up with a lot of overbuilt areas. We didn't like it.”
Messmer said the program “will definitely move the needle” – saying between state and private investment it's a $200 million down payment on a $2 billion problem.
Holcomb is using one-time money from a rewrite of the Indiana Toll Road lease for the grants. The goal is to winnow down the more than 37,600 census blocks in the state that don't have at least one provider offering minimum speeds of 10 microbits per second download and 1 microbits per second upload. This is colloquially called 10/1 and considered unserved.
Northeast Indiana has about 5,000 of those census blocks.
“There is no silver bullet. This is more about buckshot,” said Scott Rudd, Indiana's director of Broadband Opportunities. “We are approaching it from all sides.
“The interesting part about the broadband conversation in Indiana is the past couple years the conversation has changed from 'should we do something to solve this problem' to how can we do something and quickly. And that is refreshing to someone who lives in rural Indiana like me.”
But lawmakers wanted their say and drafted legislation during this year's session – Senate Bill 460 – to craft some guidelines.
Holcomb's deputy chief of staff, Cris Johnston, said the bill focuses on unincorporated areas and small municipalities – with an emphasis on having rural electric cooperatives participate by providing broadband over power lines.
Messmer said the administration plans to spend between $25 million and $30 million on Phase 1 for unserved areas. Future rounds of funding would have focused on underserved areas – with download speeds of 25 microbits per second and upload speeds of 3 microbits per second.
The bill allows the state to take applications for the underserved areas but projects can't be funded in front of those in unserved areas.
Legislators also want to avoid redundancy – or competitors laying fiber to the same area.
Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso – co-author with Messmer on the bill – said entities will get points in the application process for collaborating, for instance, instead of spending money to run parallel fiber.
“We are trying to achieve service to those who are truly rural,” he said, noting the state also won't award a grant to an entity already receiving a federal broadband connections grant. “We are trying to get the most bang for the buck.”
Avoiding overbuilt areas is also a focus in the first round of Holcomb's program. The state received 64 applications and then had 119 challenges filed.
If a provider is already offering service at or above speeds of 10/1 or has the ability to verify and document plans to provide this service by July 2021, the provider may challenge all or a portion of a grant application.
A committee of state employees will review challenges before making awards up to $5 million. A 20% match from the provider or coalition is also required.
Fewer than 10 applications came from northeast Indiana. Here are some of the proposed projects:
• Lakeland Internet LLC proposes a project encompassing 12 townships and about 26 miles of Steuben County. It could help connect 197 homes and nine businesses. “Consistent with those findings it is fully expected that Steuben County will be poised to take advantage of emerging technologies in areas including education/E-learning, medical, agriculture, economic/workforce development, e-commerce, consumer online savings,” the application said.
• Comcast proposes a $686,000 project for Zanesville, located on the county line between Allen and Wells counties. The proposed service area includes 233 homes and businesses. “Providing broadband service to this unserved area will benefit the entire Zanesville community – both residents and businesses, alike. Having access to broadband will enable residents to bridge the local skills gap, expand their career pathway, lower local unemployment rates and improve their overall quality of life,” the application said.
• LigTel submitted an application to extends its fiber service further into Noble County to serve 83 residences and 12 businesses in the communities of Brimfield and Merriam. It would improve bandwidth by 700% and bring “high-speed broadband capabilities to residents who would otherwise have lesser quality services or lack the ability deliver real-time services such as E-Learning, video-streaming, telehealth, work from home and strong access to broadband.”
• Mercury Wireless Indiana LLC proposes a $3.7 million broadband wireless access network in Allen, DeKalb, Elkhart, Kosciusko, LaGrange, Noble, Steuben, and Whitley counties. It would make service available to 3,940 households, 169 businesses and 13 anchor institutions.