High-speed internet effort begins

A $60 million project to bring high-speed internet service to people living in rural areas of 10 south-central Indiana counties will begin within a week or so.

That announcement was made during a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony for Jackson Connect on Tuesday at Pewter Hall in Brownstown.

The limited liability corporation is owned and operated by Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corp., which was established in 1937 to provide electricity to rural areas of Jackson County.

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Matt Persinger, the utility’s technology manager, told those attending the ceremony that broadband internet has become a necessity of life, just like electricity.

“And it will become even more so in the future,” he said.

After years of considering the issue, it became apparent to officials with the cooperative that no one was going to move to bring high-speed internet to rural areas, Persinger said.

“If it’s not the coop, it’s not going to be anybody,” he said.

After the ceremony, Persinger said the first signs of construction will be visible in a week or week and a half.

“You will see contracting crews out on our system looking like they are putting up electric line, but they will actually be putting cable up,” he said.

“The cable of 144 fiber optic lines will be the backbone to feed the rest of the network,” Persinger said.

The mainline will involve about 220 miles of cable.

The first activity will be in an area southeast of the utility’s headquarters on Brownstown’s east side.

The second phase will take fiber optic to the home level, and the final phase of that project would be to take it into the home, he said.

Persinger said the plan is to get about REMC 1,000 customers connected by February. Those customers would test the system out and help get any bugs fixed.

After a couple of months of testing, the commercial rollout would begin sometime in April or May, Persinger said.

He said two contractors, Electricom of Paoli and LSB Communications of Glasgow, Kentucky, will be working on the mainline installation, and they will likely use somewhere between 65 to 75 workers, he said.

“The backbone just goes across our entire system, so they are going to be in just about every county in our system,” Persinger said.

Besides Jackson County, REMC serves rural areas of Bartholomew, Brown, Clark, Jefferson, Jennings, Lawrence, Monroe, Scott and Washington counties.

The fiber optic infrastructure should not require the installation of new utility poles because in most cases, existing poles will be used.

In late June, Jackson County Council members approved a $5.43 million abatement for the project in the county.

The $5.43 million is the company’s initial investment for Phase 1 of the project, which has an overall price tag of $20 million for Jackson County and $60 million systemwide.

In the past, REMC General Manager Mark McKinney said it will take about three years for the service to become cash positive and 16 years for the company to pay for its investment.

Overall, the project will take about five years to complete and could lead to additional jobs beyond the 10 anticipated at this time.

The company does not anticipate a financial impact on its electric rates because of the operations in Jackson County.

On Tuesday, McKinney compared the origins of Jackson Connect to the start of Jackson County Rural Electric Membership in 1936-37. The first pole was set Feb. 12, 1938.

He said there will be risks to the startup of Jackson Connect.

“But we will meet them head-on as we move into this uncharted yet exciting area of our business,” McKinney said.

McKinney credited state District 44 Sen. Eric Koch and some of his colleagues in the General Assembly with passing legislation earlier this year that made the project viable. That effort produced the passage of Senate Bill 478.

That bill allows rural electric coops (REMCs) to use their easements for purposes of providing fiber optic services, Koch said.

Back when those easements where obtained in the 1930s, they specified electric only, he said.

“It was a major impediment,” Koch said.

He said no one could have known about technology advances that have brought about the internet.

Scott Bowers, vice president of government relations with Indiana Electric Cooperatives, said several other cooperatives around the state are considering providing high-speed internet service for their customers.

“I would say there is some level of interest among two-thirds of our 38 member cooperatives,” Bowers said.

Some are partnering with other internet providers or each other to offer high-speed internet to their customers.

“One thing cooperatives have done since they were formed is they will respond to the needs of the community if no one else is there to help fill that need,” Bowers said.

John Trinkle, president of the cooperative’s board, said REMC could not have done this project without several things being in place, including good fiscal management over the years.

“We could not have done it without employees,” he said. “We’ve got good people.”

Trinkle said it’s a five-year project that he would like to see finished in four.

“But if it takes 10, that’s OK because we need it out there,” he said.

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The basic cost of residential high-speed internet service will be $54.95 a month, which will include a WiFi router and download speeds starting at 50 Mbps.

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Jackson Connect is owned and operated by Jackson County REMC, a member-owned electric cooperative.