Monday, January 9, 2023
Back in August 2022, the US Treasury Department approved Indiana’s plans to use $187 million in support from the Capital Projects Fund for its Next Level Connections program. That was 92 percent of the state’s total Capital Projects Fund and was earmarked to provide funds for the deployment of broadband infrastructure to provide eligible broadband services to unserviced end-users, which include homes, businesses and community anchors such as schools and health clinics in Indiana. Indiana estimated the support would bring high-speed Internet to 50,349 locations — 7.4% of locations in the state that still lack broadband.
On December 20, 2022, the Treasury Department approved Indiana’s plan for the remainder of its Capital Projects Fund allocation — an additional $16 million — in support of Next Level Connections. Indiana estimates the additional support will help connect 5,000 more locations that don’t already have high-speed Internet access.
Indiana’s $203 million from the Capital Projects Fund may only help 8% of the state’s locations that don’t have high-speed Internet access. In addition, many rural Indiana residents are not satisfied with their Internet access, even if they could get it.
The Purdue Center for Regional Development, in partnership with Purdue Extension, the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs, and several local and regional organizations, conducted 16,200 broadband housing surveys in mostly rural areas of Indiana. The results show that while most respondents (88.3 percent) subscribe to the Internet at home, more than half were dissatisfied with their service, mainly because their connections were too slow or unreliable. Almost a third of households subscribed to cable technology, followed by just over a quarter who signed up for digital subscriber line or DSL. Of these, however, 56.3% were dissatisfied with their home service, mainly because the service was slow or unreliable. Of the 11.7% who did not subscribe to internet access at home, almost 28% said it was because the service was unavailable, followed by the service that was available but too expensive (16.5% ) or too slow (16.2%). Additionally, nearly 15% said they didn’t have a subscription at home because they already have a smartphone data plan. There is a gap between what the majority of respondents are willing to pay (less than $50) for adequate and reliable service and what they are paying now (between $50 and $74.99). Perhaps the most important takeaway from this research is that Indiana’s digital divide is not a binary yes/no problem, but a quality issue that must be considered in bridging this divide.
The good news is that more help is on the way.
In a separate announcement on Dec. 20, the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) has allocated nearly $6 million in funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act to plan for the deployment and roll-out of affordable, equitable and reliable high speed Internet service across the country.
Indiana received $4,960,351.60 to fund planning activities related to NTIA’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, including:
- Develop a 5-year action plan that includes full local engagement and ensure every Hoosier has Internet access at speeds in excess of 100Mbps/20Mbps;
- Creation of a national broadband map with all serviceable locations and their current broadband coverage status;
- Indiana Broadband Office Capacity Building; and
- Surveying unserved, underserved, and underrepresented communities to better understand barriers to high-speed Internet service adoption.
In addition, Indiana will receive $842,235.00 to fund Digital Equity Act-related activities, including:
- Developing a nationwide digital equity plan to support closing the digital equity gap;
- Creation of a digital justice task force; and
- Conducting public posts and surveys to better understand digital justice issues in the state.
As Indiana plans to connect all Hoosiers to reliable, affordable broadband, Purdue research offers five key insights to better manage the state’s digital divide:
- It is becoming increasingly clear that the current bandwidth speed threshold of 25/3 Mbit/s is no longer sufficient. Areas with advertised maximum speeds of 25/3 Mbps are not eligible for Indiana Code investments. According to the Infrastructure Investment and Employment Act, the broadband speed should increase to at least 100/20 Mbit/s. And eligibility for broadband investments should be defined in terms of actual speeds (e.g. through speed tests) rather than advertised maximum speeds.
- Give communities more say in where and which networks to build or improve. As documented in these surveys, communities have a very good idea of where broadband is lacking in their community. Communities that partner with providers can take advantage of more taxpayers’ money when it comes to improving broadband access statewide.
- Rethink the definition of overbuilding. Current practice is to avoid overbuilding, but obsolete technology should not be included when applying this definition. As documented in this study, the majority of households that subscribe to the Internet are not satisfied with their service as it is unreliable and slow. However, necessary investments in these areas are not an option for fear of overbuilding. To use an analogy, is replacing a dirt road with a six-lane highway really overbuilding?
- Affordability needs to be included in the discussion of the digital divide. As documented in this study, respondents’ willingness to pay does not match what they pay. This is the key to increasing subscription fees. Additionally, some households may have access to a faster, more reliable service, but it may be too expensive. Taxpayers’ money should be used to invest in areas and networks with competitive and affordable prices that Hoosiers can subscribe to.
- Take advantage of existing programs such as the Indiana Connectivity Program, which aims to connect residents and businesses who do not have access to broadband Internet service with service providers and support the cost of expanding broadband in those locations. Also, take advantage of the Indiana Farm Bureau’s Speed Test Initiative to run as many speed tests as often as possible (https://pcrd.purdue.edu/speedtest). More broadband data enables more strategic investments.
In addition to research, the Purdue Center for Regional Development has also deployed six grantees to improve broadband and digital literacy in Bloomington, Muncie, Richmond, Terre Haute and Versailles. In the middle of their two-year activity, the scholarship holders raise awareness of digital competence and conduct workshops and training courses.
“Our government continues to make broadband investment a priority,” said Lt. gov. Suzanne Crouch (R-IN). “The last year has taught us that reliable, high-speed internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. New partnerships continue to be formed to extend broadband services to Hoosiers and these colleagues will help so many leaders continue to work together to deliver this critical infrastructure to our state.”
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that everyone in the United States has access to competitive, high-speed broadband, no matter where they live or who they are. We believe that communication policies based on the values of access, equity and diversity have the power to create new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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