Discussions have opened among school, government and business leaders and representatives of internet providers on how to bring broadband to underserved rural areas of Allen County.

At the Feb. 28 meeting, organized by the Allen County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Nelson Peters said, “We’re not going to get the thing fixed overnight. It’s going to be costly and it’s going to require all hands on deck.”

Covering the entire state with broadband is expected to cost $2 billion. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as internet access with download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 Mbps. Advocacy groups have encouraged the FCC to raise that to 100 Mbps download speeds. Broadband over conventional phone lines is limited to 35 Mbps with current technologies.

The Allen County group identified several sectors where broadband is needed: education, medical and manufacturing.

Peters described how Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel told him a year ago he had found the home of his dreams, only to discover “the broadband stunk. I couldn’t run the internet out of it.”

Upload speeds are also restricted in areas, hindering video conferencing, which schools are adding more of, Himsel said.

East Allen County Schools Superintendent had discussed with him the need for students to have internet access on designated e-learning days, when students must complete assignments online because schools are closed for bad weather.

“We’ve got guys who are the next leaders of this community who can’t learn to be leaders unless they’re in a class,” Peters said.

“The problem is vastly understated,” said Bill Kohyha, president and CEO of the Regional Chamber of Northeast Indiana. “In our 11-county region, we probably have nine counties that are already in population decline ... if we do not figure out a way to provide broadband access to our communities, we will never attract anybody over age 40. We don’t need to turn our rural communities into senior citizens homes. We need to turn them back into vibrant, expanding communities. Our farmers’ tractors need broadband to run.”

Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and a Purdue Extension Community and Regional economics specialist, was invited to the meeting because he has worked with southern Indiana counties on their broadband issues. ‘He worked with them on creating a survey to find out how residences were using the internet. The Allen County group will develop its own survey and meet again in a month to discuss how to distribute it.

Work is already ongoing to increase speeds in Allen County. The FCC’s Connect America Fund has provided money to underserved areas including Allen County. Bob Stewart, state director of government affairs for Frontier Communications, said it has received money from the fund to expand speeds in the eastern third of Allen County. It has already put up towers in the Monroeville area. The projects must be completed within six years, with Frontier’s goal of having them completed within four.

It might take community buy-in, like what happened in Wabash, a town of 700 that contributed to get 1GB speed. Ratepayers can’t foot the bill alone.

“Seventy percent of the bits and bytes we see on broadband connections are video,” Stewart said. “...and it’s growing by approximately 10% every three months.”

That means consumers are using it for entertainment, including gaming and on-demand movies and TV shows, he said. Comparing the growth in transportation terms, he said, “So every year I-69 is going from three lanes in north Fort Wayne to six lanes, 12 lanes, 24 lanes. That’s the growth that we’re seeing. But we’re not seeing it on PDF files and teleconferencing.”

Gallardo expects a change from entertainment into more “productive” uses over the next decade.

“We’ve got to build for the future,” Peters said.

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