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Startup Costs Hamper Some Rural Broadband Initiatives

Lawmakers in Indiana are hopeful that even more money can be funneled to rural broadband projects once an estimated $350 million from the federal American Rescue Plan is officially earmarked.

Rural broadband
(TNS) — Last year, as the pandemic continued to keep her away from her students, Beverly Doughty spent parts of two days in her car, parked in the middle of a clearing on her son's 25-acre property near the Madison and Grant county line.

Doughty, a general resource teacher at Madison- Grant, relied on a mobile hotspot provided by the school to post lesson plans, file grades and do other tasks because, having moved to the country a few years prior, a steady broadband internet connection wasn't available.

"I struggled," she said, "and if I'm struggling with meeting with my students to help them with their work, then I know it must really be hard for them. We have a lot of kids here who don't have internet."

Reliable internet access — broadband and otherwise — has been a problematic issue for residents, businesses and lawmakers alike over the past decade. Despite attempts to work with internet service providers on several projects, state and local government officials have had only sporadic success in connecting many rural areas.

"There are different service providers in different areas, and certainly that creates its own unique problems because there isn't one point of contact," said Rob Sparks, executive director of the Corporation for Economic Development in Madison County. "There are a lot of unincorporated areas that just don't have access at all."

Gov. Eric Holcomb last year announced a $270 million grant program, Next Level Rural Broadband Connections, that will bring high-speed broadband to areas that currently have download speeds of less than 25 Mbps (megabits per second). Several companies, including Comcast, which provides internet to an estimated 70% of Hoosier households, are submitting proposals for a third round of funding from the program, with recipients expected to be announced in April.

Although company officials declined to describe specific locations, they said money from a grant could be used in Madison County to defray certain startup costs — something Comcast Indiana public relations director Mike Wilson called "laying the middle mile" in setting up a fiber backbone for a network.

"Just a mile of fiber can be very expensive," Wilson said. "Then we'd start doing lines to houses. If we're giving people the quality of network that they deserve without some kind of funding up-front, there would be no return on investment. We'd basically be a charity."

Lawmakers are hopeful that even more money can be funneled to such projects once an estimated $350 million from the federal American Rescue Plan is officially earmarked.

"Filling in the broadband gaps is a huge issue, not only from a workforce perspective, but it's also become now an educational perspective," said state Rep. Terri Austin, D- Anderson. "These are the tools of the 21st century."

Austin said that for educators like Doughty who live in rural areas, a lack of reliable high-speed internet access can lead to a host of other issues, including the need to make decisions on transportation, child care and other necessities.

"If they have to go back to school in the evening hours or weekends to do things like put their grades in, post their lessons, communicate with parents ... that creates some huge barriers," she said. "They have to ask questions that maybe the rest of us don't. Can I take my children with me to school? Do I need to go to the public library to do this?"

Doughty said that, although getting online — and staying online — can be a cumbersome task, especially in her profession, the reality of learning in the digital age means reliable internet is a necessity, not a luxury.

"We know that we're never going to go out of a digital world," she said. "If we really want all of our students and everybody to adapt to a digital world, we have to have internet to do that, and right now, our rural kids do not."

© 2022 The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.