The electric company that serves the vast majority of Brown County homes will decide in the next few weeks whether it will begin offering high-speed internet to its customers.
The board of directors for South Central Indiana Rural Electric Member Cooperative will make a decision by the first part of next year, said Maura Giles, SCI-REMC’s manager of cooperative relations.
“Hopefully, by the end of January we should have a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ if we’re going to go forward, and where it will go and when it will start, things like that,” she said.
The company is keenly aware of the need rural residents have for high-speed internet. She likened it to the need for electricity back when the co-op formed in 1939.
Several Brown County government boards are writing letters urging SCI-REMC to put Brown County on the short list to receive broadband. The school board, Nashville Town Council, county commissioners and county health board are just a few who have promised to add their support so far.
SCI-REMC is the largest power distribution co-op in Indiana. Just about the only homes in Brown County that it doesn’t serve are on parts of Helmsburg Road and along some state roads, including State Road 135 from Bean Blossom to Morgantown and from just north of Nashville to the Jackson/Brown county line; State Road 46 East; State Road 46 West from Nashville to just west of Town Hill Road; and State Road 45 from Bean Blossom to Trevlac, according to the company’s service map.
Those excluded areas get power from either Duke Energy or Jackson County REMC.
Local broadband company Mainstream Fiber has been extending fiber-optic internet in the Helmsburg, Bean Blossom and Fruitdale areas. Among those projects, Mainstream will have invested almost $950,000 in Brown County in six months, reaching more than 400 homes, company CEO Brian Gabriel said in October.
In July, Jackson County REMC announced it was starting to plan a fiber internet expansion to its power customers. That project, which is expected to take four to five years to complete, will serve parts of 10 counties, including Brown. As many as 1,000 customers could start receiving service by February starting in the Brownstown area, according to the Seymour Tribune.
A bill written by State Sen. Eric Koch allowed rural electric co-ops to use their easements for other “communications infrastructure” besides electricity. “It was a major impediment,” Koch told The Tribune about the existing rules, which were written in the 1930s.
Scott Rudd, Nashville’s town manager and founder of the county’s Broadband Task Force, told the Nashville Town Council last month that rural electric membership co-ops could serve to 80 to 90 percent of the county with broadband.
SCI-REMC mailed a survey to a statistical sample of its power customers over the summer, Giles said. The results, posted at sciremc.com/surveyresults, showed that 58 percent would be interested if SCI-REMC offered high-speed internet.
Right now, no one company has a large market share on providing internet service, the survey showed. Seventeen percent of customers surveyed said they had no internet at home, and 12 percent are using a cellphone or mobile hotspot to connect.
Many details, including cost and when REMC’s service would start, haven’t been answered yet, Giles said.
“It would be a very, very big investment, so if we’re going to do it, we’re going to make sure we’re providing the best service at the best cost,” she said.
Once the board makes a decision, it will be four to six months before it would start hanging fiber lines on its poles, the company reported on the FAQ page of its website.
If it is offered, internet service would not impact a customer’s monthly electric bill, the website post said. The electric and broadband businesses would stand on their own.
While there is no plan yet for where service might be deployed first, Giles said that the number of people who are interested in a given area would “be a big deal on where we start.”
However, if only a couple of people on a rural road wanted service and the others didn’t, getting internet might still be an option, she said.
SCI-REMC owns and maintains 3,559 miles of electric lines in Morgan, Monroe, Brown, Owen, Putnam, Clay and Johnson counties.
“The plan would be, eventually, to have fiber running through our entire service territory, so any member … even possibly folks who are not members would be eligible to get high-speed internet,” Giles said.
“One of the goals of a co-op is to improve the quality of life,” she said. “We did it with electricity, and we want to do it with the next thing which was once a luxury and is now becoming more of a necessity.”