Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, holds up a piece of fiber optic cable while discussing the need for broadband internet in rural areas at the Statehouse. Courtesy photo
Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, holds up a piece of fiber optic cable while discussing the need for broadband internet in rural areas at the Statehouse. Courtesy photo
Jeanie Tolbert is just one of many residents of rural Indiana frustrated with not having good options for reliable internet service.

“We live near the Spring Mill Park/60 East/Hollace Chastain Road area,” she wrote in an email. “We currently have a hot spot through Verizon that we use to load data/emails/submit homework. We do not stream.”

The only other option Tolbert has for internet is satellite, which she said isn’t good service because of data limits, the net constantly going out and the receiver had to be re-directed when trees fill out with leaves.

“We dropped (satellite) after one year due to poor service,” she said. “I’m very frustrated because I know that fiber optics infrastructure is literally running along highway 60 East, but no company will invest to bring it down roads branching off of 60.”

And Tolbert isn’t the only one frustrated with the internet situation. In fact, people like her who live in rural areas are the inspiration behind State Sen. Eric Koch’s FIBRE bill.

Senate Bill 478, also called the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion Act, “would allow Indiana’s rural electric cooperatives to provide high-speed internet service to their members by permitting them to install fiber optic cables on their existing infrastructure over electric easements,” according to a press release.

The bill passed the Indiana Senate with a vote of 48-2, and will now be considered by the Indiana House of Representatives.

“It’s an issue that I’ve been working on for as long as I’ve been in the General Assembly,” said Koch, R-Bedford. “In the 15 years that I have been working to promote rural broadband in Indiana, this initiative has the most potential to fill the gaps in the unserved and underserved areas of our state. Almost by definition, the areas served by our rural electric co-ops are those most unserved with high-speed internet service.”

Broadband internet, Koch said, is something that would improve the lives of rural residents. He also said not having good internet options negatively impacts property values.

“I think people in rural areas are entitled to the same access to the internet that anyone else is,” Koch said. “And we are seeing more and more internet use in school in the K through 12 grades, and we’re seeing more and more online courses offered through higher education.” In addition, the number of home-based businesses is increasing, Koch explained.

A couple of years ago, Koch was working on another issue with the Indiana Electric Cooperatives, and he saw maps of all the areas that are served by REMC’s in Indiana.

“As we were working on this other issue, it occurred to me that those maps aligned almost exactly with ones I had of unserved areas in rural Indiana. … I immediately saw them as the key. I said, ‘You guys got to help me. We have to find a way to leverage your role in rural areas. That was kind of the beginning of the conversation a year or two ago.”

But the REMCs told him the issue was that in the 1930s, when the not-for-profit, member-based electric cooperatives formed, internet didn’t exist. So now, the problem is that the property easements are only for electric infrastructure and not fiber optic cables.

Matt Deaton, general manager of Orange County REMC, expressed similar sentiments for the almost 8,000 customers the co-op serves.

“I feel like it’s kind of a similar situation to when electrical co-ops formed in the 1930s to bring electricity to areas that didn’t have it,” Deaton said.

He sees the need both on a professional level as the general manager of Orange County REMC and at home.

“I’m from this area. I have friends in this area,” he said. “I have heard from wives or professors who would like to work from home more. But they can’t. They have to go into town and go somewhere with good internet. I’ve also heard from people who would love to move to this area but they’ll tell me, ‘High-speed internet is keeping me from moving back.’”

“I think we’re just data-dependent in our culture, and in the future, we will only become more data-dependent,” he said. “And high speed fiber broadband has been shown to improve economics in an area where there is high speed broadband.”

He also has three kids, all with smartphones, and there’s a smart TV in the house, so when all the devices pull for internet, everything is slow to load.

“So I guess I’ve witnessed it as well. It’s important for anyone to have such a high speed internet option,” he said.

That’s why his co-op sent out surveys to its members asking about the possibility of Orange County REMC offering broadband services through its existing infrastructure for electrical easements.

“It’s a very important topic that takes time to look at: What role can the co-op play in serving our members better?” Deaton explained. “… It is my personal feeling that electrical co-ops are in a good position for this in that we already have a connection to each and every house in our rural areas. … It’s not a focus on necessarily making money; It’s a focus on better serving all of the lines we have and delivering service to our members.”

And the members he’s heard back from agree.

“We started surveying our membership in the fall of last year after kind of getting the feel of the membership that they may want this from our co-op. … We’ve heard back from about 10 percent, and it’s a resounding ‘Yes, please consider supplying high speed internet to us, to the members.’”

Tolbert, for one, is waiting for the day when there’s viable broadband internet options in her area.

“High-speed internet would change my life! I’d be able to take online courses in my nursing career, my kids could submit homework with ease, and I could stream video and music like the rest of the modern world,” she said.

© 2020, Bedford, IN.