Work on fiber-optic installation (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

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This article was originally published by Chalkbeat.

Before the coronavirus crisis, schools in hilly, forested Brown County, Indiana, didn’t expect students to work online at home.

Even with a growing fiber network in the area, too many families couldn’t connect to the internet, and those who did often used hot spots or unreliable connections. So schools used workarounds: Students did their assignments offline at home and logged on once they got to school to upload work, said Superintendent Laura Hammack.

But during the pandemic, that approach no longer works, and school leaders are finding longstanding access gaps more difficult to bridge.

“I’m quite disappointed in myself that I have not made broadband expansion and internet connectivity more of a priority,” Hammack said. “It has just illuminated the inequity that happens, and access to education is fundamentally impaired if you don’t have connectivity.”

The disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak has jolted new urgency into the promise of internet connectivity in parts of rural Indiana. The digital divide cuts differently through the small towns and spread-out country homes than it does in the larger cities. While Indiana’s urban hubs tend to struggle more with the affordability of internet service, some rural areas aren’t on the broadband grid at all.

A generous estimate puts as much as 90% of the state connected to broadband, but that coverage drops to only 40% of rural areas, one expert says — and that’s still likely overinflated.

Some worry that solving rural connectivity will take more than time and money. Access depends on the cooperation of a politically connected internet industry, which heavily lobbies and donates to state politicians while it seeks to protect business interests.

Industry leaders say the state has made significant progress in broadband access, even though some areas remain unserved. But as state leaders tout a $100 million rural access initiative, some experts and advocates fear that powerful internet providers can stifle those expansion efforts.

“For some reason, these telecommunications carriers are extremely concerned about these universal access programs, even though they don’t serve the areas and they don’t have an interest in serving the areas,” said state Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington, the ranking Democrat on the House committee on utilities, energy, and telecommunications and a senior lecturer at Indiana University. “But I think their basic concern is… they may create competition for them in the long run.”

Some liken the rural internet access issue to the push to bring electricity to farms in the 1930s during the Great Depression — expensive but essential. Without basic electricity, rural areas were stuck far behind bigger cities until a presidential effort gave way to a federal program to run power lines out to remote homes.

In 2020, the stubborn internet gap is similarly holding back rural Indiana, limiting the economy, health care, and — now more than ever — education.

Outside of Delphi, for example, the internet service is so unreliable that Jennifer Houston and her two daughters use a hot spot instead — one that throttles speeds once they hit the data cap. Sometimes the high schoolers stay up after midnight to do their homework, when the internet runs a bit faster. And a couple of days a week they drive to their sister’s college apartment to use her internet.

Compared to their friends, her daughters think “we live in the dark ages,” Houston said.

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In 2018, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb pledged $100 million toward expanding rural broadband access, a significant public investment to subsidize some of the cost of reaching isolated areas. It was an acknowledgement of the importance of the problem and an attempt to nudge slow progress along.

“Hoosiers need affordable, quality internet regardless of where they live, work or go to school,” Holcomb said last year about the initiative. “Access to broadband brings countless opportunities.”

It’s hard to say exactly how many Hoosiers remain unconnected because internet companies don’t have to report very specific data to the Federal Communications Commission. By the broad numbers, the FCC estimates some 202,000 households in Indiana have no access to high-speed internet, though there’s wide agreement that the real figure is likely much higher.

Rural connectivity has been a lingering issue for decades. Even with federal grants and some cities forging ahead with plans, whether a community could get on the grid often largely depended on whether providers wanted to serve them. Building infrastructure to reach isolated areas costs a lot, and sparsely populated areas don’t hold the potential for many new subscribers.

“In the case of broadband, there are areas that we all have known are areas of the state where it hasn’t rolled out as quickly as it probably either could have or should have,” said Neil Krevda, president of the Indiana Broadband and Technology Association.

In order for broadband expansion to no longer be so heavily reliant on providers, local communities now have to play a much larger role. Holcomb’s rural broadband grants are meant to go to places where communities and service providers apply together.

So far, the state has doled out $28 million for projects to connect about 11,000 people in the next two years, and a second round of the grant is in the works. But some say the incentive still comes with a catch — one that could let internet companies impede expansion as they seek to protect their profits and investments.

Companies can challenge proposals if they already serve or plan to provide services to a community. But some question whether providers are challenging proposals out of a desire for efficiency or from a self-serving motive. In the first round of the broadband grant, providers filed more challenges than applications. The 89 valid challenges quashed more than half of the 64 proposals, and the state ultimately funded 14 projects.

“The reason they behave this way is not so that they can provide it — it’s just to keep other people out,” said David Terrell, executive director of the Indiana Communities Institute at Ball State University, who once led the state’s rural affairs office. “That’s monopolistic behavior, and that’s a real problem. That’s a real, real equity problem.”

A spokeswoman declined to make officials for the state’s broadband initiative available for a phone interview. In an email response to questions last month, then-executive director of the Office of Community and Rural Affairs Jodi Golden said the challenge process is legally required and gives the state more detailed data from providers about how far and how fast their services extend.

“This also ensures state funds are not competing with private investment or funding from other federal sources as well,” wrote Golden, who was recently promoted to the lieutenant governor’s co-chief of staff.

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The telecommunications industry holds seats in discussions about the state’s broadband strategy and tries to influence policy through campaign contributions and lobbying. Part of the industry’s power stems from a successful lobbying effort some 15 years ago, when telecommunications companies pushed to remove the state’s regulatory control over their businesses.

Companies argued that fewer rules would foster more competition, which would in turn spur faster expansion of internet service. In some places, deregulation created opportunities — such as local telephone companies extending internet services in parts of Monroe, Perry, and Spencer counties. But it also fed the dynamic that has allowed some areas to continue to languish without connections.

“We’re still over-relying on the private sector to make good on these promises, and the private sector hasn’t delivered,” said Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, a consumer advocacy group that focuses on utility and environmental issues in Indiana. “No question about it, campaign cash and lobbying influence has a lot to do with why so many folks lack access to this service. But it’s also relationships. The industry becomes the go-to people for recommendations on policy.”

Last year, for example, AT&T Indiana was the fourth-largest spender among groups lobbying the legislature, according to state data, in large part driven by its lobbyists’ salaries and more than $7,000 in gifts, such as taking lawmakers to dinner and sporting events. An AT&T official did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Krevda, who leads the broadband association and formerly oversaw Verizon’s governmental affairs in the Midwest, disagrees that lobbying gives the industry an edge.

“I don’t see the broadband industry any different or any more influential than anyone else,” he said. “We’re deemed as a resource of education. … All we can be is a sounding board on what the next technology evolution is going to be.”

Over the past four years, three large internet providers — AT&T, Comcast, and Spectrum — and telecommunications political action committees have contributed nearly $750,000 to campaigns across the state, according to state data. That includes about $125,000 toward Holcomb’s campaign for governor in 2016 and his re-election bid this fall.

In a statement, Holcomb’s campaign spokeswoman Holly Lawson said his rural broadband initiative was not affected by campaign contributions: “Governor Holcomb’s goal is to get high-quality, affordable broadband access to all Hoosiers. He has been clear on that and his policies reflect his goal. Campaign contributions have had no impact on that policy, nor will they.”

Bridging rural access gaps is too complicated of a problem for any one player to solve alone, said Roberto Gallardo, assistant director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development and Purdue Extension specialist.

If left up to providers, “we see what we see now — and we can’t blame them, they’re a business,” said Gallardo, who works with communities to develop broadband plans. “However, we cannot also leave these [rural] guys behind, so what is going to be the middle point?”

For Indiana to truly solve the issue, it will likely take millions more in state incentives — and political will, he added.

“It’s really just a matter of, do you have the money, and who are you going to give it to?” Gallardo said.