High-speed internet wasn’t on the agenda Tuesday, but the planning commission made time for a brief discussion on it.

The Henry County planners pushed pause earlier this month on updating the local code for cell tower installation. The proposal is part of a regional plan to make East Central Indiana “Broadband Ready.”

Several people had raised concerns to the Henry County Planning Commission July 16 that not enough is known about 5G, the newest high-speed internet technology, and potential safety issues surrounding it.

County council member Chad Malicoat, one of the Henry County’s representatives on the Eastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (EIRPC), has been involved with talks to get Henry County moving toward Broadband Ready status.

Along with being a representative on EIRPC, Malicoat used to own and operate a business in telecommunications.

Malicoat spoke Tuesday about the effort, since he will not be able to attend the scheduled planning commission meeting in August. He emphasized the importance of bringing reliable internet to the most rural parts of Henry County.

The need has become especially apparent during the coronavirus shutdown.

“There are parents who are driving their kids to McDonald’s, sitting in the parking lot to do their homework. There are fellow council members who are having to drive to the public library to do their work,” Malicoat said.

Malicoat said local corporations have contacted him complaining that their employees can’t work from home during the shutdown because they don’t have adequate broadband capabilities.

“I think this is a pressing matter that needs to be addressed as soon as possible,” Malicoat told the planning commission Tuesday.

Malicoat found the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA) has grants available to help communities develop their local internet systems.

Planning commission member Kenon Gray, who also sits on the Henry County Council with Malicoat, said the concerns aren’t about high-speed internet itself.

“The issue of eLearning and portions of the county not having access to internet is well-founded,” Gray said.

The concerns are specifically about the unknowns surrounding 5G.

Malicoat got out of the telecom industry before 5G technology was developed, so he does not consider himself an expert on the systems. He did point out, however, that Henry County cannot regulate what sort of technology internet providers install on their cell towers.

Zoning Administrator Darrin Jacobs had verified that same thing since the July 16 planning commission meeting.

“(With) the Spectrum Act that they passed in 2012, the federal government basically took away the ability to regulate what type of equipment are on those towers,” Jacobs said. “On the local level, the only thing that we can regulate is placement of the towers, not the equipment that goes on them.”

Companies that already have cell towers up in Henry County do not have to ask permission to upgrade the equipment to 5G; they simply need to get a new permit saying they are doing work out there.

“To a certain extent, the genie is already out of the bottle,” Jacobs said.

The Henry County Planning Commission is still seeking industry information about 5G technology as the planners work on the local telecommunications code. Anyone with information for the planning commission can send it to djacobs@henryco.net.
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