KENDALLVILLE — High-quality broadband is a “must-have” requirement for anyone considering where to live and in today’s world. Broadband is becoming as essential and necessary as electricity, drinking water and sanitation.
The coronavirus pandemic has driven home the point. Businesses and schools have closed, forcing adults to work from home and students to cope with the shift to online learning. Remote workers quickly ran into the limitations of their service, such as slow speeds and variable access.
School children had their own problems with the Internet. Sometimes online learning got bogged down when the family’s internet service couldn’t support running multiple Chromebooks or other devices at once. Some families did not have the Internet or could not afford it.
Rural workers and students mostly found themselves in trouble. They have fewer options for providers, fewer choices about the type of service they can get, and the service is more expensive than in urban areas.
Providers go first to urban areas, where the population density allows them to make a profit with low overhead. Nobody wants to “build the last mile” in a rural community.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has focused heavily on economic development for his Next Level programs. Access to broadband services is essential if ratepayers in rural areas are to share in the benefits of the state’s economic development.
Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs has launched a grant program to encourage Internet service providers to reach unserved or underserved rural areas.
LigTel Communications, based in Ligonier, is one of the companies using OCRA grants to bring fiber-optic broadband to communities in northeast Indiana. The company provided high-speed fiber optic service to Ligonier, Wawaka, Cosperville, Brimfield, Rome City and Cree Lake in Noble County, as well as Shipshewana, Topeka and LaGrange County.
LigTel has received funding for three more projects under Round 3 of the OCRA grant cycle. A grant is $3,935,520.04 with local matching of $2,623,680.03 for a total project cost of $6,559,200 to expand access to 1,273 households and 67 anchor businesses and institutions in Noble and Whitley counties.
A second Round 3 grant is $4,955,228.20 with local matching of $3,303,485.80 for a total project cost of $8,258,714. This grant will expand access to 894 households and 243 anchor businesses and institutions in Allen, DeKalb, Noble and Whitley counties.
A third Round 3 grant is $2,652,877.44 with local matching of $1,768,584.96 for a total project cost of $4,421,462.40. This grant will expand access to 559 households and 122 anchor businesses and institutions in Noble, Whitley and Kosciusko counties.
Mead said future grants will also help the company provide access to DeKalb County parks.
“These grants will help fill the gaps,” said Randy Mead, CEO of LigTel. “We should be working on LaOtto by the end of the year.”
LigTel is busy burying fiber lines in the communities where it works. Mead said burying fiber underground costs more to do but will have lower maintenance costs in the future. Underground lines are not as affected by weather conditions or accidents.
Rural residents have seen fiber line installations along some county roads for the past two years, but the line is not in service. This is especially frustrating for residents who are near the line but cannot access it.
“Other companies use fiber for ‘carrying’, which means the line will only carry internet service for a business entity or cell tower.
“We bury the lines and come right behind to activate them,” Mead said.
Mead said the advantage of LigTel is that it is a local company with 24/7 customer service lines to report issues such as outages. The bonus — customers don’t have to navigate an automated robot system.
Mead said a human answered the customer service line during the day. After hours, calls are forwarded to tech support – also a human.
Rural electricity cooperatives
Rural Electric Co-ops shine a light on good things for residents of Noble, LaGrange, and Steuben counties, as well as a small portion of DeKalb County. It would make sense for rural cooperatives to be a logical provider of broadband services.
Some of them take on the task. LaGrange County REMC received two OCRA grants to expand fiber optic access in Round 3, but acceptance is pending.
Other electricity cooperatives, such as Noble REMC, choose to focus on their own mission of providing electricity.
Kevin Dreibelbis, director of communications and marketing at Noble REMC, said LigTel is doing most of the broadband work in the region.
“We support LigTel,” Dreibelbis said. “We are doing what it takes to help them. We stick to our core business, electricity (service).
Dreibelbis said one of the few good things that came out of the pandemic was the realization that internet service was a vital part of modern life. Nothing – business, education, economic development – can work without access to the Internet,
“LigTel has placed WiFi in public places during the pandemic. Noble REMC was one of those places,” Dreibilbis said. “It really illustrated the need.”