City and county elected officials are joining with internet vendors in the private sector and a task force in an effort to acquire some of the $100 million set aside by Gov. Eric Holcomb for broadband expansion in rural areas.

In recent weeks, both the county commissioners and the county council have approved an ordinance naming Knox County as a “Broadband Ready Community,” a designation offered by the Indiana Economic Development Corp.

The city council approved such a document two years ago, according to Kent Utt, president of the Knox County Development Corp. 

In short, it allows elected officials an opportunity to declare their support for anyone wanting to expand broadband service, especially to those living in under-served rural areas.

The legislation, too, sets up a point person, a one-stop shop, if you will, for the necessary permits, etc. In the county's case, that will be highway superintendent Benji Boyd; for the city, it's city engineer John Sprague.

“It's a way to show that you're ready and equipped to allow new or existing vendors to expand service,” Utt said. “It allows for ease in the process. That way, if someone comes in and needs permitting, it offers a quicker turnaround.

“They're saying, in a sense, 'We've resolved that we recognize the importance of broadband and are here to make it easier. You'll get no push back form us.'”

And all of it, Utt said, is part of a larger, long-term process to see broadband services expanded here.

The “Broadband Ready Community” ordinances, local officials hope, will be attractive on an state application for some of the funds set aside for Holcomb's Next Level Connections Initiative.

Two local internet vendors — Tim Trotter, owner of Echo Wireless and Clark Anderson, owner of AnderSat in Bicknell — are coming together in a joint application, Utt said.

Both are working with a local task force comprised of vendors, elected officials, business and agricultural leaders and KCDC members in developing the application.

The money, Utt said, is likely to be divvied out in amounts of up to $5 million with a required 20-percent match. But only to internet vendors willing to expand and invest in broadband infrastructure, specifically in under-served areas.

Echo and AnderSat's joint application, Utt said, is due to the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs by April 5.

Other, larger local providers, like NewWave Communications, have been part of ongoing task force discussions as well, Utt said, but aren't planning an application for this first round of grant awards.

Trotter said the money can be spent to place the needed infrastructure — fixed wireless equipment like antennas, radios, wires, etc. — atop existing “vertical assets” in under-served areas, things like grain legs, water towers or existing radio towers.

Those towers could then be connected to the next nearest — and oftentimes a bit stronger — asset until the connection leads all the way back to a fiberoptic line in Vincennes. 

The reason internet vendors don't take this on themselves, Trotter explained, is because there is often little-to-no return on their investment.

“You might spend $20,000 putting equipment on a grain leg for just three homes,” he said. “So that's why this grant money is so great. It gives private entities like us a mechanism to build out these low-density areas that, otherwise, wouldn't be financially viable.”

Utt said there are several areas in both the northern and southern parts of Knox County, rural areas, particularly near the river, that would most certainly qualify for these funds.

The broadband task force was put into place three years ago as KCDC looked to secure grant dollars as part of the state's first-ever Broadband Readiness Planning Grant Pilot, one which looks to help communities gain a better understanding of their broadband conditions and create a long-term vision for improvement.

The program looked to award $50,000 to five Hoosier communities that, together, represent a sampling of the common challenges faced by internet providers — things like geography, income and population density — all in an effort to develop ways to tackle those challenges and extend internet service to under-served areas of Indiana.

That grant failed, but Utt said letters of support written by local elected officials and community leaders at the time could be recycled and used to show support as points are given for community engagement.

KCDC, too, partnered with Purdue University in a study of available internet service across portions of southern Indiana.

The study looked at the availability of high-speed internet service in Knox, Martin, Daviess, Lawrence and Greene counties. Commissioned by Southern Indiana Development Commission in Loogootee, it revealed that 21 percent of residents say they have no internet access, and 44 percent say they have access to only one provider.

And about 45 percent of households with children in the five-county area — or almost 9,000 households — say they don't have internet, therefore widening even more what Purdue calls the "homework gap" among Hoosier students, meaning they don't have access to the growing amount of online or digital curriculum.

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