Why Investing in Broadband in Indiana will Transform Northeast Indiana’s Economy, Competitiveness

By: Nick Darrah on August 29th, 2020

Broadband Opportunity to Grow Healthcare, Education and Remote Work

The lack of access to high-speed internet in rural areas was an obstacle to health, education and economic growth, long before COVID-19. However, the global pandemic and the necessary responses to it have brought these issues into glaring focus.

The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership regularly collaborates with leaders across Indiana to advance the growth and investment in broadband infrastructure.

From healthcare and education to remote work and talent attraction, investment in broadband has the potential to increase our region’s competitiveness and capacity to attract businesses and talent. Below are just a few examples of the potential positive impact.

Healthcare

  • The economic benefits of virtual healthcare have been thoroughly studied prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual healthcare reduces physician time in diagnosing and treating patients, improves health outcomes, lowers costly emergency room visits and transportation expenses of patients, among other benefits. The cost savings to the hospitals, the patients and the state are potentially tremendous. However, Hoosiers lacking access to broadband speeds, particularly in our rural communities, fast enough to maintain a video connection will be left behind, once again.
  • Barbara Scott, CEO of Aspire Indiana, told Inside Indiana Business, “Prior to the pandemic, Aspire conducted an average of seven video appointments per day. Within two business days of Indiana’s shelter-in-place order, we had increased that to 400 per day. Within a week it was 500 per day, and after 10 business days we averaged 725 daily video appointments…After two months of doing business and serving more than 5,000 unique patients this way, what we’ve found is that not only is this model sustainable, in some ways, it’s preferable –particularly on the mental health side.”
  • Parkview Health, the largest healthcare provider in Northeast Indiana, experienced a similarly dramatic increase in virtual healthcare. They are on pace to exceed a 10,500% increase in average video visits from the prior year. Even as some clinics have reopened to in-person visits, they anticipate video visits to remain exponentially higher than pre-pandemic volume. Additionally, they expect 20-30% of all ambulatory visits to be conducted virtually, even after the pandemic is over. Max Maile, vice president of Virtual Health at Parkview Health, said “Virtual Health advanced at least 10 years into the future in 2020.”

Education

  • The COVID-19 pandemic made distance learning essential. Virtually every K-12 school system and higher education institution in the state were forced to adopt some form of distance learning at the end of the last academic year, and most are continuing distance learning and hybrid options as schools go back into session. Without access to reliable high-speed internet, Hoosiers in underserved areas are being left behind and increasingly disadvantaged.
  • A study released by Ball State in the summer of 2020 titled “How Many School-Age Children Lack Internet Access in Indiana?” identified as many as 81,118 school-aged Hoosiers who lack any internet access. This number doesn’t reflect the many more Hoosier households with unreliable or insufficient internet speeds.
  • Alison Bell, Chancellor of WGU Indiana, told Inside Indiana Business that approximately 666,000 Hoosiers, or 10% of the entire state population, live without access to wired connections of 25mbps or greater. In an era of economic uncertainty driven by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Hoosiers are going to seek educational opportunities to improve their competitiveness in the job market. With social distancing considerations, as well as shifting work and family dynamics brought on by the pandemic, “lack of access to broadband services is a barrier to Hoosiers seeking to fulfill their potential and to contribute the growth of the state’s future workforce,” Bell said.

Remote Work

  • The COVID-19 pandemic made the ability to work remotely essential, especially for many high-wage, high-demand occupations. A June 2020 survey of 120 executives and 1200 office workers published by Price Waterhouse Coopers found that 83% of office workers want to work from home at least one day a week and 55% of employers anticipate that more of their workers will do so long after COVID-19 is not a concern. Much like the acceleration of remote trends in healthcare, COVID-19 has created long-lasting shifts in the workplace. Without access to reliable high-speed internet, rural communities will not be able to compete in a post-COVID-19 talent attraction environment, or even retain existing talent.
  • The necessary responses to the pandemic forced many businesses, both large and small, to immediately and unexpectedly shift to remote work. Using Parkview Health as an example again, approximately 4,500 employees of Northeast Indiana’s largest single employer shifted to remote work, and approximately 3,300 continue to work remotely and will for the near future.
  • The shift to e-learning necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic is requiring many Hoosiers to work from home in order to manage the education demands of their children, even if their employers allow in-office work. Inadequate broadband speed can cause an additional complication to this dynamic. The limited bandwidth available to many rural Hoosiers drastically limits the ability of both parents and children to do their jobs and e-learning from home at the same time. Without reliable high-speed internet access, many rural businesses are unable to function, and Hoosiers who live in rural areas are unable to do their jobs, deepening the negative economic impacts brought on by the pandemic, with the effects lasting long after COVID-19 is over.
  • Entrepreneurship, being a critical driver of economic growth, is severely stifled by the lack of access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet. Broadband is considered an essential infrastructure when it comes to launching a business. Without broadband, rural communities will miss out on the spillover benefits of innovation, as well as the new jobs and increased incomes that entrepreneurs create.

The obstacles to overcoming the lack of broadband access in Northeast Indiana aren’t new either. The main obstacle being the high cost of delivering the service in low population density areas, which would require service providers to charge prohibitively expensive rates to their potential customers if they were solely responsible for building out the infrastructure and providing the content.

However, doing nothing or offering short-term solutions are not viable options anymore.

Without bold action, leadership and investment, we will be unable to recover from the current economic shock, let alone accelerate out of it and compete in a post-COVID-19 market for business and talent.  

Fortunately, the Regional Partnership has experience convening the right stakeholders to confront large and complex obstacles and collaborate in order to execute effective solutions:

In 2015, the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana came together to compete for and win a $42 million grant from the state as part of the Regional Cities Initiative. The Regional Development Authority (RDA) administered that grant, and as a region, we leveraged those funds into $260 million of capital investment, for 29 quality of life projects, across all 11 counties.

Regional collaboration is, once again, key to the solution for our broadband issues in Northeast Indiana. Rural Electric Member Cooperatives (REMCs) in Northeast Indiana already have a strong foundation of collaboration with private sector businesses and public entities. They also have the infrastructure and distribution networks already in place to serve over 100,000 residents in our corner of the state.

By working together with the REMCs, internet service providers (ISPs), the RDA and cross-sector collaboration of private businesses, government, education and non-profit organizations, Northeast Indiana is uniquely positioned to pilot and demonstrate a solution to provide all Hoosiers with access to reliable high-speed broadband, which can be replicated across the state.

If you are interested in learning more about Northeast Indiana’s broadband challenges and opportunities, please email or call Director of Stakeholder Development Nick Darrah.

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