Indiana’s Lieutenant Governor Sue Ellspermann along with Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith are touring the state to align stakeholders and gather information on rural broadband needs throughout Indiana. So far, the state has convened a Rural Broadband Working Group with the goal of crafting recommendations and a plan for expanding rural broadband in the state. Individuals serving on the working group include service providers, rural interest groups, economic development organizations and government agencies.
To date, the working group has five prescriptions for broadband expansion. These recommendations include streamlining permitting and right of way rules, a needs assessment to identify underserved populations, construction of carrier neutral access points, and increasing reliance on anchor institutions to provide access points. The recommendations are fairly standard for any broadband expansion plan, if a bit late relative to what other states are doing on rural broadband in the region.
However, there may be new support for expansion within Indiana as the Department of Education there has recently approved the use of online classes to make up snow days.
The Lt. Governor and Secretary of Commerce expressed confidence that action can be taken on some, if not all of these recommendations in the coming months capitalizing on the interest and commitment to success generated through the Working Group process.
Some local providers are also lining up to provide service, Metronet a 50?plus mile, dark, fiber optic network that loops around South Bend and Mishawaka, Indiana his offering a grant program to connect K-12 schools in the network area. Metronet is an agnostic last mile fiber provider. AT&T has also announced plans to expand 4G capabilities.
Indiana has a lot of work to do on its broadband networks, most schools don’t meet the FCC’s baseline for high speed access. While nearly all schools in the state have some form of connectivity, few clear the threshold for “modern digital learning” mentioned in recent remarks by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.
Some national programs are also working to help states and localities bridge this gap. Next Century Cities, a city-to-city initiative that aims to show the benefits of broadband access and build electoral support for expansion efforts recently reached 50 member communities. Auburn, Indiana is part of that group. The organization is pushing for broadband to be recognized as part of critical infrastructure like utilities, it is also pushing for municipal network self-determination which would allow localities to build and support municipal broadband networks. This can be a critical access bridge for rural municipalities that have difficulty attracting the largest providers.
All of these efforts are set against the backdrop of the ongoing federal fight over net neutrality rules. How those rules, and rules around municipal broadband networks are decided over the coming months will have a significant impact on rural broadband expansion. Recently, the USDA announced an expansion of its loan and grant programs for such projects and the FCC has maintained its support for both rural expansion and municipal networks. CivSource also reported last week on a new institute at the Mississippi State University aimed at providing research and guidelines for expansion plans backed by the Intelligent Communities Forum. Watch this space.