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Rural broadband’s bug: Financing expansion thoroughly and quickly
 

By ANN HINCH

INDIANAPOLIS — Topics of the declining farm economy and lack of broadband internet access dominated talks at the second annual Indiana Farm Bureau Agriculture Policy Outlook on June 26.

“All government and all politics starts at the local level,” said Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch – but while the state’s next great economic development frontier may be in rural Indiana, she said many of those areas are behind on the fast, affordable, reliable broadband service they need to flourish.

Last year, the state legislature gave the Indiana office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) authority to develop a grant program to expand infrastructure to carry high-speed internet, as well as to develop a cabinet-level position of the Director of Broadband Opportunities. So far, the position is unfilled and there is no funding for the grant program.

Crouch’s legislative director, Ryan Heater, later acknowledged the lack of funding and said he sees it as a big step that legislators created the program to receive funding, from wherever it comes. As for the yet-to-be-hired director, he said the job will likely be a “clearinghouse of information and contacts for this issue.”

There are those who report that 90 percent of Hoosiers already have access to minimum broadband speeds, said Scott Bowers, vice president of Indiana Electric Cooperatives. But, he asserted, “It’s not anywhere close to true.”

A Jan. 29 story by WFYI references a report that made the 90 percent claim, but also noted that populations are grouped by the government in census “blocks,” the rural of which can be large but contain relatively few people. It further noted if one person in a block has broadband access, everyone in that block may be so designated.

Waiting on private service providers to adequately build out high-speed infrastructure to rural areas wouldn’t be fast, and public funding will be necessary. Bowers said broadband is no longer a luxury reserved for a few; it’s a necessity of life – just as in 1936 the federal government decided the same thing about electricity to rural areas.

That year, it established the Rural Electrification Act to make low-cost loans to farmer co-ops bringing power lines to country homes and businesses. He strongly suggested something similar will be needed to foster more rural high-speed internet access.

“While we applaud what providers have done so far … It’s going to take something different to ensure that all Americans have access to broadband,” Bowers said.

If you’re going to ask the government to invest in such a thing, he noted, taxpayers will want to know what they get in return. There are positives to emphasize. For instance, examine what has happened to economic opportunity in areas that already have broadband access; ask how it’s added to local tax revenues, and about the “multiplier effect” for local business patronage.

“I think you could make an argument that if you’re talking about economic development, it begins and ends with broadband availability,” Bowers said, adding homes and businesses need this for computers – many farmers may rely on their smart phones to fill the role of “computer,” but not everything can be done on a 6-inch screen.

Officials and residents in Brown County agreed high-speed internet is necessary, and worked to make the county – and its seat, Nashville – among the state’s first Broadband Ready-designated communities last year. This means an area is ready to work in partnership with interested internet providers.

Brown County Farm Bureau President Rick Kelley said his county ranks 83rd in the state for broadband access, with about 44 percent of the population having it. It’s important to him that his local grandchildren have the same educational opportunities as his granddaughter in suburban Greenwood. And, his elderly mother needs high-speed for her medical-alert hardware because her phone landline isn’t always reliable.

The county tried to put together a task force on the topic in 2011, he said, but it fell apart, only to re-form successfully in 2016. By last October, a local provider was running seven miles of rural access, serving 100 homes, and further development was planned.

Bowers said there are more local Rural Electric Membership Corp. (REMC) branches getting involved in broadband access nationwide because they have some infrastructure that could be leveraged to help.

But it’s also self-preservation – if people are moving out of a rural area partly because of lack of high-speed service, that drains income from the REMC and makes its job of providing safe, affordable electricity to all residents more difficult to carry out.

As for what should be used as a determination for minimum upload and download speeds for broadband, he said it’s wiser to look out years ahead when actually constructing access to rural areas, than to build to a minimum standard. For one, that standard could increase frequently.

“If we’re going to ask the taxpayers of this state to make investments in a program … I think we would ultimately be doing a disservice to the taxpayers as well as the state” if a provider uses “minimum” equipment that will be obsolete in a few years, Bowers pointed out.

In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission changed its definition of minimum speeds, to 25 Mbps (megabits per second) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. These are often used to determine if an area is designated “served” or “unserved” by broadband.

Earlier this year, Congress approved $600 million for rural broadband funding, which Bowers said is positive but not nearly enough to solve the problem nationwide.

To read the Indiana Rural Broadband Working Group’s 2014 report on this topic, visit www.in.gov/lg/files/rbwg_report.pdf

11/29/2018