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State, Regional Leaders Talk Broadband in Monroe County, Ind.

Population density and whether residents can afford it are two of the main barriers to broadband expansion, officials say. For families unable to afford services, regional collaborations can help to bridge the cost gap.

(TNS) — Access and cost are critical elements to consider when it comes to broadband development, according to Scott Rudd, Population density and whether residents can afford it are two of the main barriers to broadband expansion, officials say. For families unable to afford services, regional collaborations can help to bridge the cost gap..

Speaking during the Monroe County commissioners’ work session Wednesday, Rudd said broadband has become critically important to daily life and businesses. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a connection to the Internet with speeds of 25 megabits download and 3 megabits upload. He said there has never been a better time for Monroe County to attract broadband investment. As a result, he added, more communities across the state — including Monroe County — are seeking ways to spur new investment in broadband.

There are two major barriers to expanding rural broadband, according to Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development: a lack of density in an area and whether residents can afford it.

Gallardo said it can be expensive for providers to expand into rural areas. He said the return on investment for a provider to do so can be very low. Rudd said communities have relied on offering assistance to providers to overcome this challenge by using some of the economic development tools already available and working in partnership with companies to help them meet certain needs.

Locally, the county commissioners approved the creation of an Infrastructure Development Zone for northern portions of the county to spur rural broadband development. It would allow the county to approve a personal property tax exemption for providers seeking to install fiber to homes, businesses, schools and publicly owned buildings.

“That is an important step forward,” Rudd said.

However, he said there is even more the county can consider in expanding rural broadband. This includes:

  • Establishing a broadband task force.
  • Opening right of ways to providers.
  • Providing scholarships to families unable to cover the monthly cost to have broadband.
  • Pursuing grants.
  • Reviewing and validating data showing broadband needs.
Rudd said attracting broadband investment is only the beginning. Residents must also be able to afford it.

Unfortunately, he said, low-income families often cannot pay for broadband. Rudd said some communities respond to that problem by forming partnerships between the providers, school districts and local community foundations to address access and affordability issues. Also, some communities have looked at scholarships for low-income families.

Families being unable to afford broadband can have negative impacts on kids. Gallardo said the No. 1 driver of broadband adoption is children. He said as schools use more technology in the classrooms, kids need to have Internet access at home to be able to complete assignments. Those who don't have reliable internet access at home can be educationally left behind their online peers — a trend that is sometimes referred to as the "homework gap."

Rudd said collaboration with various stakeholders should be a key part of the county's plans to expand rural broadband service. He encouraged the county commissioners to develop a broadband task force to get diverse voices to the table to discuss how to move forward.

Regarding potential financial support, Rudd suggested a couple of grant programs.

One of those is Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Next Level Connections Grant Program that earmarked $100 million of state dollars to be doled out to communities to assist with expanding rural broadband. Rudd said the first round of that program has ended, with 64 communities being considered for funding. He expects a second round.

In addition, Gallardo mentioned the Broadband Readiness Pilot grant program that provides a minimum of $50,000 to communities that are accepted. The pilot program seeks to “help communities gain an understanding of their current broadband conditions and needs, create a long-term vision of broadband in their community, and identify options for achieving that vision,” according to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs website.

©2019 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.