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Internet to last mile may not play out like you think

Remote areas in Posey and Shelby counties already have fiber optic internet, while parts of Indy-metro doughnut counties still wait.

December 9, 2019

3 Min Read
contractor working on telephone poll
RURAL OPPORTUNITY: Rural cooperatives have provided utilities to farmers and rural residents historically. It’s happening again with high-speed internet availability. NineStar Connect

Providing high-speed broadband internet “to the last mile” is a goal of many Hoosiers. Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch took several steps to encourage extension of high-speed internet to rural Indiana. Gov. Eric Holcomb and the Indiana Legislature put up $100 million in grant funds in the 2019 session.

That’s the good news. Here’s reality. Some insiders within the telecommunications industry believe it will take far more than $100 million to blanket the state. And instead of a blanket approach, what’s developing resembles more a patchwork quilt pattern of excellent access to fiber optic internet in some rural locations, with a dearth of high-speed options in other more-developed areas.

Consider this. When you think about where that “last mile” of service might occur, you probably picture a remote location in Posey County or an isolated hamlet in Rush or Starke County, where houses are miles apart.

What you don’t think of is an area in one of Indiana’s more populated counties, outside city limits yet within 30 minutes of a large city — say Indianapolis, Evansville or Fort Wayne.

Based on the way fiber optic access is spreading now, one of these latter locations might be the one waiting the longest for fast, reliable internet service.

Fill the gaps

How could that happen? Possibly because of the way cooperatives versus private utilities serve designated areas within counties, and because of a difference in attitude toward serving rural people.

Here are two examples: First, if you live 20 miles north of Evansville, like Randy Kron, Indiana Farm Bureau president, you don’t have high-speed internet. If Kron wants to upload data from a drone flight, for example, he drives 20 miles west to an outlying farm in Posey County, farther from any big city, where he can load the data in an hour instead of 15 hours. That area has fiber optic cable because a local utility installed it during a project.

Or if you live 25 miles south of downtown Indianapolis in Johnson County, between Franklin and Bargersville, you scramble for fast internet options. But if you live 35 miles from downtown Indy in tiny Trafalgar, and if you’re served by Johnson County REMC, not a privately held utility, you may have fiber optic service. The local REMC, working with another co-op utility, NineStar Connect of Greenfield, ran fiber optics to Trafalgar, Bargersville and the Indiana FFA Leadership Center while running fiber optics to cell towers. They tend to favor long-term profitability and support for the local economy.

So, don’t be so sure about where that last mile might lie. Here’s hoping state leaders and legislators, legitimately concerned about connecting Indiana to the world, recognize this paradox. Utility regulations are no longer just about who serves whom with electricity or landline phone service. Now something else no one ever imagined decades ago is at stake — who gets connected to the rest of the world, and who doesn’t!

Maybe it’s time to reassess what constitutes “rural Indiana” and how it gets served by utilities.

Comments? Email [email protected].

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