Limited broadband access causing Whitley County’s failure to connect

February 27th, 2019

By Chelsea Boulrisse | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly

Access to quality high-speed internet continues to be a problem in Whitley County, leaving some folks in the more rural areas feeling a clear disconnect.

“I would say that for anybody on the street, whether it’s a resident, a business or even elected officials, this is the No. 1 issue on everybody’s mind: the desire to have better internet service,” Jon Myers, president of the Whitley County Economic Development Corporation, said.

The main obstacle internet providers encounter when trying to link up people outside the city limits is the cost of installing the cables. A busy neighborhood with houses close to each other may have several homes connected to the same line, cutting costs for the users and ensuring the internet company gets a solid return on its investment. That same line, run in a more rural area, may only see two or three households connect to it, making it costlier for users and the provider.

“Like anything, it’s got to make business sense for the internet companies as well,” Myers said. “If you take particularly the big telecom companies, they invest their construction budgets in towns versus going out into the countryside.”

For this reason, Churubusco has taken one of the biggest hits in the quest for high-speed broadband due to its rural landscape.

“We’re a smaller community so we’re going to have less people utilizing it than say Fort Wayne,” Churubusco Town Council President Mark Pepple said. “So (providers are) going to focus there and try to get customers there.”

That being said, according to Myers, access even in the more densely populated Columbia City and South Whitley still leaves something to be desired.

“It’s not great compared to the rest of the planet but at least folks have something,” Myers said. “As best as I can tell from discussions with them, they have maxed out on the equipment they currently have in place and just either don’t have the money to invest in upgrades or they have priorities elsewhere.”

In this day and age where everyone and everything is online, reliable broadband access is an important commodity for people looking to move their home or business to Whitley County. For prospective homeowners, limited internet access can be a deal breaker and result in less population growth for the area.

“It’s become as important as sewer and water and other utilities in terms of somebody building a new house or even moving to a community,” Myers said.

Area schools have also increased student dependency on the internet with the adoption of e-learning days in place of snow days. A reliable internet connection is key to letting students download and submit their school work, making it more than just luxury used for entertainment purposes.

The lack of reliable broadband has been most felt by local businesses who are trying to keep up and navigate the world of e-commerce on a less-than-stellar internet connection. In fact, Myers pointed out, this has resulted in the loss of new business in Whitley County as potential owners seek other options.

“I would say it’s probably the businesses that have struggled the most,” Myers said. “They need 50- or 100-megabyte service to run their ordering systems or to send blueprints back and forth.”

Whitley County and the EDC realized that Whitley County was not up to par in regards to internet service about two years ago and have been actively seeking out solutions since. Talks of running cables along the U.S. 30 corridor have been in the works and mobile service providers like AT&T have expanded their services to offer a solution for certain folks.

In Churubusco, Pepple advised that the council has spoken to two different providers that are interested in extending coverage to the town. These discussions are still early in the process though and nothing has been finalized.

Unfortunately, the process of getting the whole county onto the grid, namely stringing fiber-optic cables out to the people along county roads and in rural location, could cost a company about $15 to $20 million. The price is far from attractive for internet providers.

“I don’t have a clear path to a countywide solution,” Myers said. “It’s about finding and convincing big companies to invest locally and trying to push smaller companies that think that they can succeed and compete but don’t necessarily have the financial strength to do a huge countywide project.”

For now, the internet access battle will remain at a stalemate until county and companies find a compromise that will best benefit both sides.