NAPPANEE — Bringing broadband internet access to rural areas isn’t a silver bullet for economic development, but it is a vital ingredient, a senior specialist in the U.S. Department of Commerce says.
Don Williams, senior broadband development officer for BroadbandUSA in the Office of Telecommunications and Information Applications, spoke at the Regional Economic Development Summit in Nappanee on Wednesday. The summit followed the November meeting of the Michiana Area Council of Governments Policy Board.
Williams was one of several state and federal program representatives and local government leaders who spoke about infrastructure, placemaking, workforce housing and broadband. The panels talked about the programs and funding that’s available and gave examples of local projects that used them, including Nappanee’s $30 million combined sewer overflow project and Goshen’s newly unveiled inclusive playground that was partially funded through a state “crowdgranting” program.
Williams remarked on how the other three areas often rely on dependable high-speed internet access.
“If you’re in rural America and you do not have access to broadband, your community’s in trouble. It just is,” he said. “Broadband is not a silver bullet for economic development, it’s not sufficient for economic development, but it’s absolutely necessary. Communities that do not have good broadband lose population.”
It’s something needed for everything from homework and job applications to agriculture and telemedicine, he said. But rural areas are often underserved because it’s not profitable for private companies to install broadband.
“Often it’s for the same reason that rural America didn’t have good electricity: You can’t make money off it,” he said. “Why can’t you make money off it? It’s not economies of scale, it’s economies of linear density. If you don’t have good linear density, the private sector has a hard time getting it up and running. That’s gonna require capital subsidies. It’s also, in some areas, gonna require operational subsidies.”
Elkhart County has invested millions of dollars in installing dark, or inactive, fiber optic lines for the past several years. The lines are leased to private companies who light them up by providing internet service to customers within reach of the network.
The county gets a lot of requests for dark fiber from rural areas that are under-served by high-speed internet, largely south of Goshen, according to County Administrator Jeff Taylor. He said they might have access to wireless broadband from a service provider, but there are limits to the speed it can provide compared to fiber.
“There’s only so much money a business can plow into the ground,” he said. “It’s a big, expensive undertaking. But it’s coming along, slowly. The county is providing a path that will help underserved areas, in addition to local businesses.”
County officials recently approved a $2.6 million contract to connect the fiber network to two data centers in South Bend, which is expected to be completed in the next few months, and hired a manager to bring control of the system in-house. The manager will oversee locating underground utilities, business connections to the network and meeting with service providers.
Taylor said the southern connection to a data center in South Bend could be done by the end of the year and the northern connection could be finished by the end of March. Completing the loop will accomplish several things, such as making the network more resilient by providing redundancy and giving county departments a place to back up data, he said.
The hope is also that the internet service providers who use the data centers will expand into Elkhart County, giving customers more choices and lower prices, he said.
“There’s value in the network today, but it becomes more valuable when we finish the connection to the data centers,” Taylor said. “It’s not only an economic development tool, the county has a need for it also.”
He stressed that the county’s aim is to provide dark fiber but not to provide internet access directly, so it doesn’t end up competing with private businesses. Their focus so far has been on giving medium to large businesses the chance to connect to fiber lines, and leaving home connections to internet service providers.
“At this point, we prefer to let local providers focus on residential needs,” he said. “Our main focus is putting in the backbone, so other providers can in turn run off of our backbone.”
Homes and small businesses are welcome to connect, Taylor added, but the problem is the $1,000 monthly cost of leasing a pair of fiber strands.
“If you’re a large business and you need dark fiber, we will be happy to run it to your front door. But we’re really not interested in lighting it for you,” he said. “Once you have dark fiber at your front door, a business can choose a service provider... We don’t want to be in the business of providing a lit service. We’d rather give you a list of providers, and you can call and get the best deal.”