Hoosier rural broadband proponents forge ahead


A decade ago, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jill Long Thompson ran on a platform vowing to save every Indiana city and town. But there was skepticism. Indiana is pockmarked with communities that died when we transformed from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy a century ago.

Dozens of Hoosier cities and towns face the same dilemma two decades deep into the 21st century. Those that innovate will survive. In my home of Brown County, survival means expanding rural broadband internet.

Recently before bedlam overtook the Indiana General Assembly, Nashville Town Manager Scott Rudd sounded the alarm. He had been working with Advance Indiana Municipalities and the Office of Community and Rural Affairs on House Bill 1065, which would create a grant program to bring broadband to the “last mile.” It was floundering.

What should I do? Then I thought, “What would President Trump do?”

So I went to the Twitter machine: “We’re hearing AT&T is trying to kill off HB1065, the bill that would help companies and REMCs bring high speed broadband to rural areas. Hell to pay if this is what’s happening. Time for rural legislators to step up and fight for their economies and constituents.”

And then this: “On AT&T snuffing HB1065, the bill allowing REMCs and small companies to extend rural broadband to our rural Hoosier brothers and sister, my weekly column runs in Churubusco, Elkhart, Lawrenceburg, Crothersville, Hendricks County, Logansport, Kokomo … there will be HELL TO PAY if 1065 dies.”

I forgot to add the Trumpian, “SAD!”

Minutes later, a source in the lieutenant governor’s office reported my tweets were having an impact. Then I got a call from AT&T Indiana President Bill Soards, who insisted, “We aren’t trying to kill it. We continue to try and make it tech neutral.” By that, Soards was seeking to make sure the operational costs would be there for all providers.

My interest in HB1065 stemmed from my service on the Brown County Broadband Task Force, which was founded by Rudd and includes members from the county public school corporation, highway department, community foundation, citizen activists and smaller internet companies. The goal has been to expand access to that “last mile.”

A Federal Communications Commission report revealed that rural Indiana residents are lagging behind all adjacent states in high-speed internet access: Indiana 58.5 percent, Kentucky 68.8 percent, Illinois 63.5 percent, Michigan 66.4 percent and Ohio 71.1 percent.

State Sen. Erin Houchin picked up the effort in the General Assembly. HB 1065 had the support of REMCs, Comcast and several broadband innovation groups. “They reached out and said, ‘Let us help craft something we can support’,” Houchin told me on Monday. “That was the first time that had happened.”

As most bills do, it morphs and evolves. On the eve of the General Assembly’s adjournment, it appeared AT&T had gotten the operating expenses written into the bill, which Houchin believed would eat up funds to build out rural systems. She pressed the conference committee chairman, Rep. David Ober of Albion, to remove them. He initially refused, saying, “I guess your bill is dead.”

Houchin is from Salem and represents Washington County and adjacent areas. Ober is from Albion in Noble County in lake country. Folks will tell you how fitful it is to get reliable, high-speed broadband in those locales. From AT&T’s perspective, the return on investment is too low. Folks should wait for wireless.

Houchin reached out to State Rep. Sharon Negele of Attica, got her to help with the changes, then pursued two Democrats — State Rep. Ryan Hatfield of Evansville and Sen. Lonnie Randolph of East Chicago — to sign the deal. Ober, too, finally relented and it was filed just before chaos broke out. Gov. Eric Holcomb signed it into law Wednesday.

“I’m especially pleased to see that we are making progress on ensuring equal broadband opportunities across rural Indiana,” Crouch said. The Indiana Farm Bureau’s Justin Schneider called it “a good first step” with a “mechanism to be able to fund applicants.”

During this whole process, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sent the Falcon Heavy rocket into space, including two Starlink satellites.

Business Insider reports that Starlink will “bathe Earth in high-speed internet access. The Starlink plan calls for nearly 12,000 interlinked satellites — many more than currently orbit Earth.” SpaceX’s Patricia Cooper explained, “The common challenges associated with siting, digging trenches, laying fiber and dealing with property rights are materially alleviated through a space-based broadband network.”

But Musk explained, “We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space.” Even so, he said that 90 percent of local access will still come from fiber in terra firma.

The potential for a Starlink technology leap had been discussed extensively on the Brown County Broadband Task Force. Do we wait for cosmic leaps? Or forge ahead with existing technology?

The Brown County Commissioners voted to create the first tax- and fee-free zone for rural broadband investment, designed to take advantage of the new law. “It’s a great step forward. Now we need to find money for the new rural grant program and go to work,” Rudd said.

Hoosier innovators made a decision not to just stand still. The future of Hoosier communities is at stake.

Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at howeypolitics.com.

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