See the light

January 30th, 2014

News Coverage:

See the light

New working group will address how to increase broadband access in rural areas

Posted: Thursday, January 30, 2014 11:00 pm | Updated: 10:43 am, Fri Jan 31, 2014.

By Doug LeDuc

The Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana and Frontier Communications Corp. have joined the newly formed Rural Broadband Working Group to assist its statewide effort in finding ways to improve broadband access across Indiana.

The group was organized by Indiana Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann and Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith, and its first meeting was scheduled to take place Jan. 30 in Indianapolis.

“The effort is being coordinated out of our office,” said Lexie Hosier, press secretary for the lieutenant governor, a little more than a week before the meeting. “It’s still in the early stages.”

“The lieutenant governor is putting together the working group to get key people around the table to start the discussion,” she said. “It will be talking about the availability and quality of high-speed broadband in rural areas.”

A statement on the group’s formation said its purpose was to “explore how Indiana can attract more broadband investment so that all Hoosiers will have the high-speed Internet access necessary to support existing enterprises, create small businesses, educate Hoosier youth and connect rural Indiana to the rest of the world.”

Officials with the regional chamber and Frontier said the organizations look forward to contributing to the working group’s discussion because they support its goals.

As far as broadband goes in northeast Indiana, “there are many areas that are very well-served right now,” said Vince Buchanan, executive director for the regional chamber.

The planning process used to set the organization’s policy agenda has repeatedly pointed out a need to extend high-speed Internet access to “the pockets that don’t have the broadband needed to support business,” he said.

Buchanan said the regional chamber supports the broadband objectives of the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and the Regional Opportunities Council, a group of more than 100 regional leaders that oversees the partnership’s visioning process, Vision 2020.

ROC funding commitments for 2013 included $20,000 for a broadband asset mapping project. It will involve a survey of northeast Indiana businesses and community leaders to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the area’s fiber-optic service.

The project dovetails well with the five “pillars” of Vision 2020: attracting 21st-century talent; fostering a competitive business climate; entrepreneurship; building infrastructure; and improving quality of life.

With the partnership and ROC, “broadband access has been one of their top items for three years going,” Buchanan said. High-level Indiana officials have taken interest in the issue, he said, because “they’re hearing the same message across the state.”

Frontier’s Central Region — comprising Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska — has its headquarters in Fort Wayne. Buchanan praised the provider of phone, broadband and subscription television service for the infrastructure investment it has made in the region.

“Part of the reason they were very interested in participating in this project is they have an interest in continuing to move us forward and put us at a competitive advantage in comparison to … other states,” he said.

“In the day and age in which we work, we rely on the Internet,” Buchanan said. “And for us to be able to retain and attract the business that will enable us to move forward in the future, the better Internet we’re able to provide, the better position we’re putting our businesses and our community in.”

In the statement on the rural broadband group’s formation, John Lass, president of Frontier’s Central Region, said since July 2010, it has invested more than $240 million in its Indiana infrastructure.

In December, the company announced $3.6 million would be available for its broadband build-out in the state from the Federal Communication Commission’s Connect America Fund.

The funding will make broadband available during the next three years to 5,939 additional households in 19 Indiana counties, including Huntington and Wells.

The company has “expanded broadband availability to 88.57 percent of the Hoosier households we serve,” Lass said in the statement. “We are excited to participate in this initiative with the lieutenant governor’s office to determine how we might help the state of Indiana become one of the best connected broadband states in America.”

Indiana is important to Frontier. After the company closed on its purchase of Verizon Communications business in 14 states in July 2010, it had more lines in Indiana than any state it served except West Virginia.

In addition to Fort Wayne, Frontier’s business in the state includes customer clusters in Elkhart, Lafayette, Seymour, Terre Haute, Valparaiso and east-central Indiana.

“I think the knowledge and background Frontier has in providing service to rural areas will be of benefit to this working group,” said Dana Berkes, a public-relations manager for the company in Fort Wayne.

“Broadband availability from Frontier is a two-pronged approach, increasing speed and increasing availability, and I believe both those topics will be on the forefront in that discussion.”

About 89 percent is a strong level of broadband penetration given the size of small and medium-sized towns and cities, and the amount of rural area in the company’s Indiana telephone exchanges, she said.

“To win 89 out of 100 is a good starting point,” Berkes said. “The last 11 is a harder goal because at that point you’re looking at homes that are several miles apart and not feet apart. When you’re looking at cable length, that’s a piece of it.”