By Noah Crenshaw | For The Tribune
INDIANAPOLIS — A new program will help bridge the digital divide in unserved and underserved areas of the state when it launches Monday.
The Indiana Connectivity Program aims to help more Hoosiers obtain access to reliable and high-quality internet, and will connect those who lack or have subpar internet service with internet providers for possible service expansions, state officials announced Tuesday.
The need for expanded access to quality service was heightened over the last year-and-a-half due to the coronavirus pandemic. The connectivity program, run through the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) and Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch’s office, is a path toward bringing more expanded and reliable service to households and businesses throughout the state.
“Adding broadband was no longer a luxury, it was a necessity,” Crouch said.
Hoosiers can also initiate interest by calling the Indiana Broadband Connect Center, which is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on business days, starting Monday. Hoosiers can reach the call center at 833-639-8522.
“Through this program, we can help more Hoosiers, especially those in rural areas, have better access to quality internet service,” said Denny Spinner, OCRA’s executive director. “The Indiana Connectivity Program is one more step toward expanding broadband accessibility to all corners of Indiana.”
The program came about from a bill state lawmakers passed earlier this year. This past legislative session, lawmakers proposed 18 bills that addressed internet access.
Lawmakers greenlit $250 million in funding for the program, and another $20 million was contributed to the program through excess funds from a previous broadband initiative, Crouch said.
Previous programs showed the state that many Hoosiers were encountering a similar issue — they did not have access to quality service, but somehow, their neighbors did. Also under previous programs, only providers could apply for available state grants.
Now, Hoosiers can submit an application to the state, letting officials know they do not have an adequate internet speed. Hoosiers who want to apply have to live in a location that has access to actual download speeds of less than 25 Mbps and upload speeds of less than 3 Mbps.
The state will reach out to the providers and pay for service to be provided. Additional funding could also be available from the the state’s Next Level Connections Broadband Program, which assists in expanding internet opportunities to locations that are submitted through the application process.
A 60-day bidding process would follow for providers, and once awarded, providers would need to complete their projects within nine months of the contract date, state officials said.
Indiana officials will review applications from residents every three months to see if any applications from the same area can be bundled before the state approaches providers. It is a rolling process, and the state will look at all applications that are submitted, Crouch said.
While residents can submit their location information to the state, it is not a guarantee that their internet service will be expanded. The state could also hold an application for another cycle, but that is not guaranteed either.
The main caveat of the program will be getting providers to agree to provide service. Providers are open and want to partner with the state to expand access, but any expansion is contingent on providers partnering with the state.
“We are very optimistic we will find providers who will provide the service to Hoosiers who need it,” Crouch said.
The Indiana Connectivity Program will continue until the $270 million in funding runs out. Legislators do have the option to extend the program or add more funding in the future, she said.