‘Whatever it takes’: Council throws support to REMC high-speed internet expansion

The Brown County Council is willing to do anything necessary to bring high-speed internet to the 7,200 households currently receiving electricity from REMC.

That was the message delivered to the general manager of Jackson County REMC, Mark McKinney, and president and chief executive officer for South Central Indiana REMC, James Tanneberger when they attended the Jan. 22 council meeting.

They were there to talk about the nonprofit electric companies’ initiatives to bring high-speed internet to their customers.

No public announcement has been made yet about which counties SCI-REMC will bring internet to. Tanneberger said the counties involved in the four-year project would be announced “most likely” in March.

“We’re so excited about it. We want to be on the cusp of what’s happening,” Brown County Council President Keith Baker said.

“Whatever it is you need in talking with your board, or whatever decision you make, you’re going to find a very, very eager audience in Brown County for high-speed internet. I can’t tell you how much we love having you guys here.”

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 Jackson County REMC 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.

“Not only are we going to do this project, we are going to do it to every single member that we serve if they want it,” McKinney said.

“Just like in the ’30s when electricity did not reach out into rural areas, the co-ops had to step in and do it. They did it right. That’s the same mentality we’re using with this.”

The Jackson County REMC project will serve portions of Van Buren and Washington townships, McKinney said. About 1,000 of the company’s customers are in Brown County.

“We’re looking at a potential $3.4 million investment,” he said.

“We are in the process now of evaluating where phase two will be. We’re about a third of the way through phase one, which was approximately 330 miles of fiber optic cable being installed. When this is all said and done, if everything goes as planned, we’ll be looking at over 2,000 miles of fiber being installed. This is not fiber to the curb, this will be fiber all the way into the home.”

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The minimum speed it’s going to offer is 50 megabytes, and McKinney pledged that the service would be affordable to members.

SCI-REMC has about 6,000 electric meters in Brown County, Tanneberger said.

Just about the only homes in Brown County 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.

“We want you to know that we’re thinking long and hard about coming into Brown County with fiber. Our project is very similar to Mark’s, in that we’re not talking about fiber to the curb, we’re talking about fiber to the home,” he said.

Several Brown County government boards wrote 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 had promised to add their support.

“We know our counties need it, our members need it, and we don’t plan to just stop there. We have four years to get out to our members, but we know we will be in very close proximity to a lot of nonmembers, and we really want to consider those ultimately as well,” Tanneberger said.

He said high-speed internet is no longer a luxury.

“In some ways, electricity has become a right to folks. That’s where we’re headed with high-speed internet. We really are trying to look out for the good of our members and the counties,” he said.

“We’re not trying to make somebody rich. … The revenues that we get from broadband, our intention is if we get to that point where we’re bringing in more money than we’re having to spend on expenses, we want to turn around and we want to work that into the electric side of our company to help with rates.”

Tanneberger said SCI-REMC has a challenge in its service territory due to the amount of state forest land in it.

“In a world where your load isn’t growing, that can get challenging when your expenses continue to grow. So we see broadband as important to economic development and important to the survival of rural Indiana, and important to REMC, also, because of the economic development aspect of it,” he said.

“Anything you all can do to help support us, we greatly appreciate it, and I think it would be well served. It would be for the right reasons,” he told the council.

“We want to work with you. You’ll find a welcome audience in Brown County,” Baker said. “You tell us what you need and we’ll look and see if that’s something we can do to help you out.”

Tanneberger said once the announcement is made, SCI-REMC will “hit the ground running.”

“We’re not going to waste any time,” he said.

The council audience applauded after Tanneberger and McKinney spoke.

“This is a game changer,” said Mike Laros, the chairman of the local Broadband Task Force. “Their ability to use existing infrastructure to go out to areas in the more rural areas is incredibly important to our development.”

“I talked to an old farmer and he said, ‘Why do I need a fancy television?’” Baker said. “I said, ‘The problem you have is not you needing a fancy television, it’s that your grandson can’t come home and do his homework on his school laptop because you just don’t have access to that.’”

Lack of high-speed internet has also been a “holdup” for home purchases in the county, especially for those who want to work from home, he said.

Laros encouraged the council to tell both REMCs that the county would try to help them in any way. “I don’t know what that (help) exactly means, but basically to show that we really understand the need and we appreciate the opportunity to have people considering us,” he said.

Last June, the Jackson County Council approved a $5.43 million abatement for the REMC internet project there, according to the Tribune. There was no mention of a tax abatement during the Brown County Council meeting.

Any help that these REMCs might get from the county would be available to other high-speed internet providers as well, Baker said.

In addition, Koch has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would allow grants from the Office of Community and Rural Affairs to fund communications infrastructure, including broadband internet. Those would only be available to Broadband Ready communities, which both Nashville and Brown County are.

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.