April 25, 2024

Benjamin Better

Better Get Computer

Local providers taking lead to bring high-speed internet | Heraldrepublican

During the 1930s, Rural Electric Membership Cooperatives brought electricity to farmers and their neighbors when for-profit utilities shied away from the task.

“The REMCs … did that 85 years ago with electricity. Now it’s back to communication — they’re looking to us for that,” said Ron Raypole, CEO of Noble REMC.

Today, rural residents are lagging behind their city neighbors in a 21st-century necessity — high-speed internet service known as broadband, carried over fiber-optic cables.

“None of the communication companies want to pay for the expense of running rural fiber, with the density so low in population,” Raypole said.

Coming to the rescue, three REMCs in northeast Indiana action are taking steps to bring broadband to their customers. In LaGrange and Steuben counties, REMCs will finance the projects. In Noble County, Noble REMC will cooperate with a for-profit internet service provider, LigTel Communications of Ligonier.

In DeKalb County, which does not have its own REMC, the city-owned Auburn Essential Services could become a savior for rural residents suffering from slow data speeds.

For now, many rural customers have no source of what state officials consider a minimum standard for internet service — at least 25 megabytes per second of data upload speed.

Rural dwellers instead rely on lower-tech providers that rarely exceed 10 MB speeds.

A new, statewide survey by Indiana Farm Bureau so far has received 478 test reports from the local, four-county region of northeast Indiana, with 415 — or 86% — falling below the 25 MB goal.

LaGrange County REMC took its own survey, finding that around 60% of its customers rely on digital subscriber lines, or DSLs, that typically provide internet at a snail’s pace by today’s standards.

“What we heard loud and clear, when we did that survey … they want something faster, and higher-quality, too. We”re trying to fill that need,” said Mark Leu, CEO of LaGrange REMC.

“We did a survey of our members, and our survey shows they need it bad,” Raypole said about Noble REMC. Most of its customers have download speeds between 5 MB and 10 MB “if they’re lucky,” he added.

More than just a luxury for entertainment, high-speed broadband has become a necessity for rural residents, especially because people are working from home and schools switch to online instruction when they close for any reason.

“It’s a key piece of infrastructure, as crucial as electric, water, sewer,” said Anton King, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Partnership. “Data and access to data — and the speed that you can get that data — is crucial to our future success.”

“Broadband enhances quality life by delivering streaming video and other entertainment options, work-at-home opportunities, e-learning and telehealth options. But it also has become a critical component of attracting people and growing population and the economy,” Lori Gagen, operations director for the Noble County Economic Development Corp., wrote recently in KPC Media Group newspapers.

“For the economic development of the county, it’s important that high-speed, reliable broadband is available, and really the only way you can accomplish that is with fiber to the home,” said Randy Mead, CEO and general manager of LigTel Communications.

“What people don’t know is: You’re looking a tens of millions of dollars of capital investment” to bring fiber’s speed to rural areas, Raypole said.

In spite of the financial challenge, he added, “Our intention is to get broadband to the county one way or another.”

Northeast Indiana’s four counties are pursuing different strategies toward that shared goal.

Noble County

Noble REMC is working to cooperate with LigTel Communications to bring broadband to rural customers, Raypole said.

“LigTel has put fiber out in our county already, and It makes no sense for us to try and compete with them. How can we help them do it to improve the quality of life for everyone here? That’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.

“We’re unique in that we are a for-profit company that is looking to invest our money into rural Indiana,” LigTel’s Mead said. The company has offered fiber to customers in its telephone exchange for a long time, he added.

Spending its own capital, LigTel began expanding its fiber-to-the-home service to rural customers in 2017. It already serves more than 1,500 fiber subscribers outside the city of Ligonier, in areas including Brimfield, Merriam, Cree Lake north of Kendallville, lower Long Lake and areas south of Albion and east of Kendallville.

“We’ve invested a lot of money in the last four years” into rural broadband, Mead said. “So far in our approach, we’ve been very strategic,” focusing on more densely populated areas. “The next step is to figure out how we fill in the gaps and expand beyond where we’ve already built fiber.”

To assist, Noble REMC intends to pursue an arrangement to allow LigTel to install fiber lines on the REMC’s electricity transmission poles.

“There’s some advantages of putting the fiber on our existing poles at a much lower cost than it would be for an internet service provider to bury it, all down the roads,” Raypole said.

Burying fiber-optic cable would cost $50,000 per mile, he said, but installing it on existing poles would cost $25,000 per mile.

It would take 1,200 miles of fiber-optic lines to serve all Noble REMC members, he said. That translates to $30 million.

“We need all the grant dollars we can to assist us,” Raypole said.

One source could be Next Level Connections Broadband Program of the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which has $270 million to distribute statewide in a grant process later this year.

“We remain hopeful that this Next Level funding will bring some financial assistance to Noble County and the people interested in broadband,” Raypole said.

“We’re asking everyone who has poor internet service to please take the broadband speed survey on the Farm Bureau website,” he said. “We need that data to submit to show that we do not have broadband available in Noble County to the majority of homeowners, and businesses, alike.

“That is so important that we get assistance to be able to do this project. We don’t want to shoulder our members with a lot of debt for the next 35 years.”

To extend broadband most efficiently, Raypole said, “We chose to work with community leaders and LigTel and the EDC (Noble County Economic Development Corp.) to see if we can all be part of a project to get this done. We’re kind of excited, because there’s not too many around the state who are doing this, I believe.”

Other REMCs do not have a partner like LigTel. The Ligonier company “may be Noble County’s greatest asset in terms of broadband expansion, thanks to the company’s desire to see fiberoptic internet service expanded to benefit Noble County,” Gagen wrote.

“We’re going to be pretty aggressive. There’s some opportunities through the state’s Next Level Grant program to help possibly fund that, so we’re going to pursue that option and see where we’re at, when it’s done, and see what we can accomplish,” Mead said about LigTel.

“Even if we don’t get the grant, we do have some areas we’re going to reach out to, anyway. The grant only helps us do more,” Mead said.

“We’re dedicating a lot of resources — not just money, but time, also — into evaluating where the best place is for us to go, and being strategic to not only make our shareholders happy, but also make the residents of Noble County happy.”

“I think we’ve got an arrangement that we can get things done, if the grants come through as we hope,” Raypole said.

Even with a state grant and a partnership with LigTel, it will take time to build a network to all rural homes.

“I would love to get it out there to everybody in three years, but I don’t know if it’s possible,” Raypole said. “We are trying.”

LaGrange County

Since early June, when LaGrange REMC invited its customers to sign up at broadband.lagrangeremc.com as potential broadband subscribers, more than 2,000 customers have pre-registered for service.

“There seems to be a lot of initial interest out there,” said Mark Leu, CEO.

LaGrange REMC is starting construction of a broadband network at its headquarters east of downtown LaGrange, and it will be building a “backbone” loop around the county until October.

Leu anticipates hooking up the first customers in November, with completion of the full system by early to mid-2023.

“It’ll take a little longer than that to get everybody that wants connected connected, obviously, because we’ve got 4,000 to 5,000 people that are going to want to hook up to us,” Leu added.

LaGrange REMC’s potential broadband service territory takes in virtually all of eastern LaGrange County to S.R. 327, much of western LaGrange County except Topeka, and does not include the town of LaGrange.

The broadband lines will pass approximately 8,500 homes, and Leu is hoping to see 45-50% of them subscribe initially.

The $25 million estimated cost of the broadband network is getting a boost of $5 million from LaGrange County’s Major Moves fund — money from the state’s lease of the Indiana Toll Road to a private operator.

LaGrange REMC also has applied for a federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant.

“We should be receiving money for that, but we haven’t received our final approval yet,” Leu said.

The REMC also will apply this fall for an Indiana Next Level Broadband grant from the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, and Leu said he expects success

LaGrange REMC is planning to offer home subscriber rates that are comparable to providers serving local cities, such as $59.95 per month for 100 megabytes per second and $99.95 per month for 1 gigabyte. Business rates would be $109.95 and $349.95, respectively. Speeds would be “symmetrical,” or the same for both uploading and downloading.

As a not-for-profit cooperative, owned by its members, “We’re not trying to do it to make money,” Leu said. “We’re trying to offer what we believe is a necessary service for quality rural life.”

Steuben County

Steuben County REMC is taking the lead to provide fiber-optic lines to its members in Steuben County and portions of neighboring counties.

Earlier this year, Steuben REMC spent $2.8 million to acquire iMan, also known as the Steuben County Fiber Network.

“This is the first step in the expansion of a fiber-to-the- home network” that will bring broadband availability to its membership over the next 4-5 years, REMC said in a news release about the purchase.

“Steuben County REMC expects this $25 million investment in infrastructure to be capable of meeting the region’s broadband needs into the future. The iMan acquisition will provide a reliable backbone that will bolster the project economics and build-out,” the cooperative added.

“We have a big job ahead of us, but our members have been here before when we collectively worked together to provide rural Steuben County with electricity at a time when no one else would. Today we find ourselves in a similar circumstance and it is again time to cooperatively light our future with broadband services,” said Kevin Keiser, CEO of Steuben County REMC.

The REMC will seek state and federal grants to support building the fiber-optic network, the cooperative said.

In late June, the network’s first fiber distribution hut was placed at its Orland substation north of Miller Poultry on S.R. 327. The hut will hold equipment to bring the fiber signals to future broadband internet customers.

“There will be other huts placed throughout the system as we work through the additional phases,” said Josh Durbin, Steuben REMC member services director. “We’re excited. It’s a big undertaking.”

Construction of the fiber system will occur in four phases, starting with the west side of the Steuben REMC service area, from Hudson to Orland, and working in a clockwise rotation around the county.

Phase 1 will serve the Orland, West Otter, Salem and Hudson areas. Construction will begin this fall, with fiber-to-the-home installation following later this year.

Phase 2 will start in early 2022 for the Nevada Mills area, which includes parts of Lake James and Crooked Lake.

Phase 3 is scheduled for 2023 in the North-Central-West Angola and Fremont areas.

Phase 4, covering southeastern Angola, Hamilton, Ashley and rural Waterloo, is estimated to be complete in 2024.

REMC is expecting its subscriber plans to start at $50 per month for speeds up to 10 times faster than anything currently available in the region today, it said.

“This new broadband service will be a big challenge, but as our membership has come to expect, helping improve the quality of life for everyone in the region will continue to be our priority,” Keiser said.

Earlier this year Steuben County REMC became the owner of the former IMAN fiber optics system that was first started in 1999 by the Steuben County Community Foundation.

When the purchase was announced in 2020, Jennifer Danic, president and CEO of the foundation said the non-profit organization that was part of the foundation had met its goals and in order for it to grow on the residential level, a buyer had to be found and the REMC was a natural fit.

DeKalb County

Chris Schweitzer knows how to build a fiber-optic broadband network.

As head of city-owned Auburn Essential Services, he’s overseen its development since the beginning in 1995. It’s still experiencing record growth — in both 2019 and 2020 — and on pace to set another record this year.

Schweitzer also knows how to expand a broadband network.

In the past few years, Auburn Essential Service has reached beyond the edges of its basic service territory to add several hundred rural customers. It now is growing into neighboring Garrett’s residential areas, and soon it will be available to 55% of DeKalb County’s potential subscribers.

Now, Schweitzer and his team have developed a plan to serve the rest of DeKalb County. It would start by building main arteries of fiber cable to connect the communities of Butler, Waterloo, Ashley, Hamilton and St. Joe with their 3,300 homes and businesses, then spread its veins into the rural areas between them and 4,800 potential users.

What Schweitzer doesn’t know is how to pay for the $20 million estimated cost of his plan.

Thanks to its success, Auburn Essential Services has been able set aside $4 million it can contribute to an expansion into rural DeKalb County.

Someone else will have to find the rest of the money to do it — all at once or in stages.

Unlike its neighboring counties, DeKalb County does not have a Rural Electric Membership Cooperative to help with the task. REMCs from neighboring counties reach into rural northwestern DeKalb County near Ashley, but they could serve only about 7% of the county’s 21,000 potential broadband customers.

“We’re very fortunate to have a local internet service provider in AES that is willing to provide this service and build it out,” Anton King, executive director of the DeKalb County Economic Development Partnership, said about rural broadband.

A new committee discussing how to spend DeKalb County’s $8.4 million grant from the federal American Rescue Plan has mentioned broadband expansion as one possible use.

“I think that’s going to be a key role for the county money,” said County Commissioner Mike Watson, a member of the committee. He called broadband a “strong contender” for some of the funds.

Auburn Essential Services will apply for a grant from the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs, which has $270 million to distribute statewide for rural broadband. The county’s funding may be eligible to use toward a required local match of any state grant.

Watson also wants to get DeKalb County certified as a “broadband-ready community” to open doors for funding opportunities.

Auburn Essential Services can show grant-makers a master plan that “renders the greatest benefit to the most people,” Schweitzer said.

“As soon as some of these funds can be applied, we’re interested in building it out in a way that gets the most subscribers the fastest,” he said.

With adequate funding, it would take 3-4 years to reach every corner of the county with fiber-optic lines, Schweitzer estimated.

“We’re ready, we’re eager, our system’s healthy” for tackling the task of expanding, Schweitzer said. “It’s a challenge we welcome. I think we’re mature enough.”

Future users of Auburn Essential Service can expect reliable service with local support, unmetered use, identical upload-download speeds and swift response to its rare outages, Schweitzer said. Connections to 20 gigabytes-per-second internet sources in Columbus, Ohio, and Chicago increase the system’s dependability.

“It’s not just fiber” that makes a strong broadband network, Schweitzer said. “It’s the whole recipe.”