Slow going: High-speed internet still wish for much of county

Out on Lick Creek Road, Gina Anderson and her neighbors are without access to what she considers an essential utility: broadband internet.

Two weeks ago, she started an online petition addressed to county, state and federal agencies, Google, Verizon, AT&T and even the White House, pleading for countywide, high-speed service.

It had gathered 296 signatures as of Jan. 19.

“How people feel is defeated,” Anderson said.

Internet access has gone from a convenience to a necessity, Anderson said. From homework to her own work, not having reliable internet at home is a major disadvantage for her family.

A manager for a landscaping company in Greenwood, Anderson could work from home in the winter, cutting out an hour drive and the cost of childcare. But without a good internet connection, that option is off the table.

If their children need to get online, they have to go to the library — which is difficult to manage when both parents work outside of the county and trying to fit in after-school activities.

Regardless of whether teachers assign homework that specifically requires internet access, any children who can’t access the internet at home to do research are already at a disadvantage, she said.

The Andersons have looked for a solution for about five years, she said.

They have tried Wi-Fi hotspots from every available cellular carrier and explored satellite internet.

In the summer, even their regular cellular service is spotty, and most people living around her have signal boosters in their homes just to get telephone service.

Satellite internet works where they are, but not well enough; like the cellular connection, it’s spotty and slow.

“We all live in Brown County for our own reasons,” Anderson said.

“We all like rural living, but they eventually got telephones and other utilities. At one point in time they didn’t have water or electricity, either.”

Task force

Vision 2020, a report created in 2009 by local focus groups, placed affordable, countywide high-speed internet in the same category as sewer and water.

In 2011, West Lafayette-based InfoComm Systems produced a strategic plan for the Brown County Economic Development Corporation — a group which no longer exists — that outlined ideas for how to cover the county.

Concepts included creating a public internet utility, a Wi-Fi network covering all of Nashville and public computer centers.

Ric Fox, the IT director for Brown County and former Nashville Redevelopment Commission president, said last year that he thinks a town-wide Wi-Fi network is feasible, to serve businesses and residences. However, no plan has been developed for such a project.

The 2009 plan defined broadband internet as 4 Mbps download speed with 1Mbps upload. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission has increased the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps up and 3 Mbps down.

Yet, even that speed is too slow for many modern applications, said John Tiernan, an engineer who works from home using a cellular hotspot. He’s a member of the newly formed Brown County Broadband Task Force.

The task force was brought together last October by Scott Rudd, Nashville town manager/economic development director. In addition to Rudd and Tiernan, Brown County Redevelopment Commission President Dave Redding is on it, as is Mike Laros, a former consultant in the utility industries.

Laros said the group has seen interest from several carriers in expanding into Brown County.

Ellettsville-based Smithville Communications is focused on business connections in Nashville. Brown County-based Mainstream is looking to extend fiber optic coverage in the county beyond the lines the company ran to Brown County schools several years ago.

Other companies, such as AT&T, are discussing providing rural broadband through cellular networks, Laros said.

Laros said people are beginning to recognize that internet is no longer a convenience or a luxury.

“It’s going to be vital for the future of Brown County,” he said. “It’s required both for existing businesses and for us to attract new businesses and attract new types of residents.”

That also ties back into the schools, where the declining population is hurting attendance, which hurts state funding for local schools, Laros said.

Why the holdup?

Rudd said some areas of the county are simply not economically feasible for internet providers to extend their service to them. The potential profit would not offset the cost in some sparsely populated areas.

The task force has looked at funding through grants as well. But applying for those requires not only showing need but also that any network established would be sustainable, Laros said.

And the price tag is no small figure, Tiernan said. They have received estimates ranging from $20 million to $40 million to connect the entire county.

Bryan Gabriel’s Mainstream Fiber installed the fiber optic backbone that connects all three elementary schools the Nashville campus for Brown County Schools. The company is currently working to expand coverage into the county from that backbone.

“This is is kind of where our heart is. We grew up here,” said Alasa Harper, Mainstream’s director of expansion.

Mainstream kicked off a program in early 2016 that encouraged people to register interest in coverage for their area.

Mainstream is working on a project now in Jackson and Washington Townships that Harper estimates will serve about 78 people who have completed surveys, as well as any neighbors who are interested.

That fiber optic extension stretches along Morrison Road from State Road 45 to Helmsburg Road, then on Helmsburg Road from Jackson Branch to Lanam Ridge, she said. It will also run partway up Lanam Ridge and Grandma Barnes roads.

Anyone within 1,000 feet of any of the routes may be able to connect, Harper said.

Mainstream is still working out how to actually run their lines, even though they are set on the route, Harper said.

One hiccup they hit was the cost Duke Energy wanted to charge Mainstream to use their existing poles, Harper said.

The “make-ready” cost — which includes Mainstream paying to repair or replace some of Duke’s poles — approached $200,000 for the project area, Harper said.

So, they are looking to see if other options, like burying lines or erecting their own poles, will be cheaper.

Mainstream is also expanding coverage on the east end of the county, running from Hoover Road east along State Road 46 toward the county line. They’re also looking at the Henderson Ridge subdivision.

To the north, Mainstream has run fiber optic lines along State Road 135 North as far as the first railroad crossing, and they are working on permits to cross the rail lines, Harper said. Once that is completed, they plan to run fiber optic to just south of Three Story Hill Road.

Mainstream intends to continue expanding as they are able, Harper said. The online survey program is still active, and areas that reach the threshold for number of interested residents will continue to get their first attention.

More options?

While there are several other fiber optic carriers in Brown County, the only other one that works directly in the residential market is NewWave Communications.

Belinda Dunivan, regional manager, said there are no planned Brown County expansions in NewWave’s current budget.

Individuals or groups interested in having NewWave service extended to them can cover the cost of expansion, Dunivan said. However, the price can vary wildly, depending on terrain and what NewWave infrastructure already exists nearby.

NewWave is now in an ownership transition. Last week, Arizona-based Cable One Inc. announced it had bought the Missouri-based NewWave for $735 million, according to Reuters. On its website, Cable One, like NewWave, describes itself as a primarily rural provider.

In the meantime, residents — and some task force members — are just going to have to keep finding workarounds.

Tiernan his wife, Kirstie, both telecommute. They use a Verizon hotspot for most of their internet, but also have an AT&T plan for summer, when the foliage cuts down the signal.

The couple also rent a desk at Launch Brown County in downtown Nashville, where Kirstie Tiernan does much of her work. The Brown County Chamber of Commerce operates that service, which includes access to high-speed internet.

Kirstie Tiernan enjoys being out of the house part of the day, as well as being able to walk to a restaurant for lunch, John Tiernan said.

For some, that may be a good compromise over driving to Indianapolis, Bloomington or Columbus to work.

The task force knows that people all over the county want and need internet, but it will take time no matter what, Rudd said.

Where it's going

Mainstream is the only wired provider currently expanding residential Internet service in Brown County. When completed, the projects will cover areas in the eastern, northern and western section of the county.

When service will actually be available has not been determined.

Helmsburg Road

A fiber optic extension under way stretches along Morrison Road from State Road 45 to Helmsburg Road, then on Helmsburg from Jackson Branch to Lanam Ridge. It will also run partway up Lanam Ridge and Grandma Barnes roads.

State Road 46 East

Service will be extended from Hoover Road following State Road 46 East toward the county line. The final extent of the project has not been decided.

State Road 135 North

Line has been laid from the junction with State Road 45 north to the first railroad crossing on 135 North. Mainstream is working on permits to cross the rail lines, and intends to extend service as far north as Three Story Hill.

Get connected

Gina Anderson’s petition asking for countywide, high-speed Internet access can be found at: thepetitionsite.com/743/925/811/bring-technology-to-all-of-brown-county-not-just-nashville/?taf_id=32410847&cid=fb_na#bbfb=993857142

Those interested in fiber optic expansion in their area can fill out a survey at: msfiber.servicezones.net/brown

Information on requesting NewWave service can be found at newwavecom.com

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Ben Kibbey is a Brown County transplant from the cornfields of central Ohio. He covers county government, business, outdoors, sports and general news.