Aspire recognizes that during this COVID-19 pandemic, our homes are now our businesses, schools, doctor’s offices and places of entertainment, and that significant areas in Johnson and adjacent counties lack acceptable broadband coverage. Therefore, Aspire is taking an aggressive role in supporting policies and increased funding opportunities to expand broadband in our community and throughout our state. In the 21st century, it is important that everyone has access to broadband to help our businesses grow and our communities thrive.
“When the pandemic presented itself, Aspire immediately began talking with state and federal legislators during the 2020 stay-at-home orders about the need to prioritize broadband funding and coverage,” explained Aspire President and CEO Christian Maslowski. “Aspire made broadband expansion a legislative priority in the 2021 session and has been tracking and testifying on broadband bills.”
Maslowski added that broadband impacts virtually every Aspire member investor. “Businesses were slowly adopting remote working, but the pandemic normalized it overnight to the point where it is nearly a ubiquitous business practice,” he observed. Strengthening broadband and other infrastructure elements is one of the tactics included in Aspire’s new 5-Year Economic Development Strategic Plan as part of its goal to boost site development for catalyst projects, Maslowski noted.
The Indiana General Assembly is advancing several solutions to Indiana’s broadband challenge this session.
Aspire’s broadband efforts are being tracked by its lobbyist, Caryl Auslander of Torchbearer Public Affairs. “We anticipate that most matters related to broadband funding will be merged into HB 1449,” she explained.
“This underlying bill requires certain speeds for broadband projects to be eligible for state funds in the budget, creates a website for customers to report inadequate broadband service, and prioritizes schools for funding. It passed through the Senate Utilities Committee on March 11. The next step in the process is a second reading in the full Senate, which is the final opportunity to amend the bill. This could happen as soon as March 16. The House Republican-passed budget bill currently sets aside $250 million for broadband, although this number could change by the end of the legislative session as the Senate now has its turn to create funding priorities in the legislation.”
Language from two Senate broadband bills – SB 352 and 377 – was heard in the House Utilities Committee last week and portions were added into HB 1449. SB 352 deals with INDOT and broadband infrastructure in rights-of-way, and SB 377 deals with accountability for broadband projects that receive state grants. A third Senate bill requesting a study on allowing investor-owned utilities with broadband infrastructure to lease their infrastructure to broadband providers has passed through the Senate but has not yet been scheduled for a committee hearing in the House.
All the bill authors have committed to working together to create an omnibus bill with the best parts of all the introduced legislation. No one has pride in authorship, and the legislators stressed the importance in creating a viable solution.
A fourth Senate bill, SB 359, has been assigned to a committee. Government finance consultant Adam Stone of Stone Municipal Group explained the bill introduces a new concept of local governments issuing broadband bonds to be repaid by the service provider rather than through new taxes. Stone added, “The bill also prohibits local government from planning broadband projects in areas where an equivalent internet service already is available. In more rural areas where internet service is less likely to be available, the government should evaluate whether to issue bonds and determine whether it meets the bill’s ‘unserved area’ definition.”
Stone added, “The bill also requires the Indiana Department of Transportation to create a ‘broadband corridor program’ – or dig once program – to manage broadband infrastructure in a portion of rights-of-way of limited-access highways. Through this program the state would invest significant resources to build out a fiber backbone throughout Indiana.”
One of Johnson County’s broadband providers, Johnson County Fiber (JCFiber), is trying to boost service to rural areas. Johnson County REMC CEO and JCFiber President John Sturm commented, “We are expanding our high-speed, fiber-optic internet network to reach an additional 5,000 customers in our service territory over the next four years. We recognize its importance and that current high-speed internet providers are not prioritizing rural areas. It’s time to bridge the digital divide separating rural and urban Johnson County.”
Dr. Timothy Edsell, Indian Creek Schools superintendent, noted, “In our ‘hybrid’ teaching environment, there is a need for strong internet connectivity for students to complete their assignments. In parts of southern Johnson County there are ‘dead zones’ which are highly wooded, sparsely populated or located too far from a tower. The more we can improve broadband, the better our education system will be.”
But improving broadband delivery also starts with ensuring Indiana has contemporary maps illustrating existing broadband service.
Sturm added that JCFiber’s expansion represents a long-term investment, and they continue to pursue grant funding which is often thwarted by maps inaccurately citing existing coverage levels. Despite this, Sturm said, “we are moving ahead with this expansion as a community service because Johnson County rural residents need it.”
“In a budget year with tight revenue projections, we are thrilled with the level of attention this critical 21st-century infrastructure is receiving,” concluded Maslowski, “and we applaud the volume of ideas swirling around the government center to close the gap!”