Indiana Senate opens door to rural fiber

EnergyLines June 2018

 

Acquiring a high-speed internet connection can be hard in rural communities, but in today’s world, it has a huge impact on quality of life. Rural residents are driving their children into town to upload homework or waiting for the library to open to fill out a job application. High-speed internet is becoming a necessity for the 21st century.

 

Electric cooperatives are uniquely situated to help solve the rural broadband problem because they are in the rural infrastructure business. In addition, the community-based, member-consumer business model of electric cooperatives positions them well to play a leading role in advocating and delivering rural broadband.

 

Indiana State Senator Eric Koch (District 44) spoke at the South Central Indiana REMCs fiber announcement in April. Koch reviewed several legislative stances that encourage electric cooperatives to pursue broadband capabilities in their territories. The 2015 Broadband Ready Community Bill encouraged the streamlining of local permitting processes in order to expedite the installation of broadband technology in municipalities designated as broadband ready.

 

The senator referenced Enrolled Senate Bill 478, introduced in 2017, allowing electric co-ops to access existing electric poles within existing easements to install fiber optic cable for the expansion of fiber optic broadband service within their territory.

 

This bill opens the door for co-ops to fill the gap of much needed high-speed internet in geographically-challenged areas, where traditional carriers cannot or will not provide broadband. 

 

Cooperative plans

Three Hoosier Energy member co-ops are currently taking on the rural fiber connection challenge. Jackson County REMC, Orange County REMC and South Central Indiana REMC are taking steps to bring high- speed internet to their member-consumers.

 

Jackson County REMC started with an initiative in February 2016. After extensive research, it was discovered that no company was willing to take on the task of rural broadband, so Jackson County REMC decided to offer this service in its area. A multi-phase construction plan was developed and began in October 2017.

 

The first phase includes a 220-mile fiber backbone and 120 miles of fiber for the circuits served from the Brownstown Metering point. Construction of phase one is almost complete. Phase two, including construction of 650 miles of fiber, is well underway.

 

On June 25, 2018, Jackson County REMC connected their 100th fiber account and has almost 4,500 accounts system wide who have expressed interest in acquiring the fiber internet connection. This is approximately 18 percent of the total number of electric accounts. This is approximately 18 percent of the total number of electric accounts.

 

“The interest levels we are experiencing indicate we are doing what our members are wanting us to do by providing a true high-speed internet solution to their home,” said Jackson County REMC General Manager Mark McKinney.

 

Orange County REMC began researching their fiber options in 2017. 

 

“Initially we surveyed our members to determine general interest and then followed up with another survey which contained detailed information that came from a financial feasibility study completed.  Based on the second survey, 85 percent of Orange County REMC members stated they would take our service if it were offered,” said Orange County REMC General Manager Matt Deaton.

 

Those consumers who were lucky enough to have high-speed internet in their area stated that they were dissatisfied with their current internet service provider. 

 

As the previous cooperatives did, South Central Indiana REMC (SCI REMC) surveyed consumers about broadband needs. The survey showed that while high-speed internet was extremely important, most consumers weren’t sure how to get it since major internet service providers avoid rural areas.

 

SCI REMC’s Board of Directors chose to move forward with a phased zone approach for installation. Phase 1 will offer services to approximately 3,754 homes in Southeastern Morgan County, Northwestern Brown County and the Northeastern area of Monroe County. Construction for the backbone infrastructure has just begun, with plans for the consumers to start receiving internet service at the end of the year.   

 

Additional phases will also be partly chosen by demand. Current consumers may sign up on the SCI REMC website. Fiber services will also be offered to those homes and businesses that are not SCI REMC consumers, for a nominal fee. Installation for current consumers will be free. Along with fiber, SCI REMC will also offer voice over internet protocol (VOIP) phone service with clear connections and advanced calling features. This service will be offered for $40 per month when added to one of the four fiber tiers.  

 

Johnson County REMC is also in the fiber business, having partnered with Ninestar in 2012 to deliver high-speed internet to members in Johnson County.

 

Electric cooperatives embrace concerns for the communities they serve. For some, a need was recognized and certain co-ops are positioned to be the ones to solve the problem. Entering this business is not for all co-ops. There must be a balance of what is best for the members as well as what is a feasible solution for the co-op.

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