Indianapolis-based Indiana Fiber Network has even more in store for northeast Indiana than the infrastructure it just built out for low-cost, high-speed broadband along the U.S. 30 corridor in Allen and Whitley counties.
The new infrastructure now serving companies at the Park 30 Business Center in Columbia City and other businesses along U.S. 30 “went live with multiple customers prior to July and had a general blowout in July,” said August Zehner, IFN’s vice president of sales and marketing. “A dozen or so businesses recently have connected to it.”
IFN also does a wholesale business, so some of them are buying through their carrier as well.
“A lot of our wholesale customers are on nondisclosure,” Zehner said. “A majority of the major carriers are customers of IFN.”
Indiana Fiber Network is a limited liability company owned by 20 Indiana local exchange telephone companies. It was formed in 2002 to provide data center, Internet backbone and data transport services via fiber networks.
It provides broadband through more than 4,500 route miles of fiber connected to more than 4,000 buildings in Indiana. It has invested $63 million in northeast Indiana broadband infrastructure, including 1,200 route miles of fiber.
IFN has a goal of providing bandwidth in rural and underserved markets. The Indiana Broadband Map created by the state identifies where it still lacks affordable, high-speed broadband shows most of those areas are in less populous parts of southern Indiana.
Jim Turner, the company’s chief executive officer, considers the usefulness of the map somewhat limited because it is based on Federal Communications Commission data and the agency’s definition of broadband has not been updated, he said, to reflect continually increasing commercial and industrial needs for bandwidth.
Coming changes major northeast Indiana industries can expect to see through greater use of the internet of things, artificial intelligence in automation, and telemedicine can be expected to require more bandwidth.
Northeast Indiana has one of the nation’s most manufacturing-intensive regional economies, and “you think about the importance today of data transmission for manufacturing and logistics,” Turner said.
IFN has upgraded its core network in the southern part of the state to position itself for growth in underserved areas there. But, “we think there are great growth opportunities in the northern part of the state as well as the southern part of the state,” he said.
The FCC still uses a broadband definition adopted in 2015, which set wired carrier speeds for the term at 25 megabits per second for downloads, and 3 Mbps for uploads. But, many companies are running their operations with systems that require high bandwidth because they are not on the premises, but are in the cloud, Zehner said.
Today’s businesses want their upload speeds to be the same as their download speeds, he said. And most of those on IFN infrastructure want connections of at least 50 Mbps, 100 Mbps or 300 Mbps, and many want 1 gigabit per second or 10 Gbps.
By that measure of need for higher-speed broadband, “there are a lot of counties in this northeast Indiana area that still struggle,” Zehner said.
To bring those kinds of speeds to more of northeast Indiana that doesn’t already have them, “one of the things we’re looking at is partnering with the rural electric companies,” Turner said.
“Wabash Valley Power Association is a wholesale power generation and transmission cooperative serving 23 distribution electric co-ops in the state. They have poles where fiber can be strung. A lot of the fiber we do is in the ground, but we can also use poles.”
In northeast Indiana, Wabash Valley members include Heartland REMC, LaGrange County REMC, Kosciusko REMC, Noble REMC and Steuben County REMC.
Many of the Wabash Valley members have transmission facilities, which are connected to each other via proprietary fiber optic cable known to have sufficient capacity to satisfy the broadband needs of underserved communities they pass, Turner said.
IFN is exploring a partnership with Wabash Valley.
“I think what they are looking at is could we help them use that fiber more expansively,” Turner said. “We have the expertise to help them by operating their (broadband) networks for them. What they will tell you is at their member meetings the number one issue they’re hearing about is high-speed internet, because in too many communities, it’s just not there.”
IFN has has conversations about a partnership for at least six months now and Turner hopes o reach some kind of an arrangement by year’s end.
Turner recently was elected to the board of INDATEL, which has a goal similar to Indiana Fiber Network’s, of bringing reliable bandwidth to rural and underserved markets.
Indiana’s performance in relation to that goal, compared with the performance of other states, probably was a factor in his election to the board, he said. He and Zehner said they would give Indiana a report card grade A- for its work toward that goal.
“The innovation of INF, as well as its competitors, and their willingness to work together, I think it’s good,” Zehner said.
“Indiana does pretty well, but every state has work ahead of it to close the gap,” Turner said.