Two local internet providers opted not to apply for a portion of state funds aimed at improving broadband service in rural areas, Kent Utt, president of the Knox County Development Corp., told members of his board of directors last week.

Tim Trotter, owner of Echo Wireless and Clark Anderson, owner of AnderSat in Bicknell, had hoped to submit a joint application to acquire a portion of the $100 million set aside by Gov. Eric Holcomb.

The deadline was last week.

“They decided not to pursue it,” Utt said. “I think it was just the scale of it all, and the time-frame. It was hard, especially for a small business owner, to get it all together in time, the financing, plans, projections, things like that.”

Both Trotter and Anderson had been working with KCDC officials and a local broadband-focused task force comprised of vendors, elected officials, business and agricultural leaders, in developing the application.

The state money is meant 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.

Another internet vendor, Watch Communications based in Ohio, did get its application for a portion of this Hoosier funding in on time, Utt said.

If awarded any funds, they plan on combining it with an earlier federal grant also aimed at expanding broadband service, possibly to spend on improvements here.

“They already had major plans to do work anyway,” Utt said. “This would open the door for them to do a little bit more in Knox County.”

Trotter's plan had been to spend state funds on infrastructure — fixed wireless equipment like antennas, radios, wires, etc. — placed 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 led all the way back to a fiber optic 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.

Now, Utt said he is unsure whether there will be additional awards from Holcomb's Next Level Connections Initiative or whether any local internet vendors would be in a position to apply.

Locals, however, will continue meeting to discuss ways to improve broadband service in rural areas.

In recent weeks, both the county commissioners, the county council and the city council have all approved ordinances naming Knox County as a "Broadband Ready Community," a designation offered by the Indiana Economic 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 sets up a point person 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.

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 Pilot Planning program, 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 — 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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