Lack of reliable internet leaves rural Hoosiers in the dark

By Makenna Mays
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS – In southeastern Indiana in the middle of miles of cornfields is a long stretch of road that is home to students, laborers and farmers, but lacks one necessity of the 21st century – access to efficient internet service.

“It’s very frustrating not having the internet because it limits what you can and can’t do,” said Paulette Varble, who has lived on St. Peter’s Road in St. Leon for 13 years. She has been trying to get internet access for 10 of those years.

Almost every Hoosier has access to mobile broadband, which is the kind of internet service available through cell phones. But as many as one in five people living in Indiana have limited access to wired internet connections that allow for downloading information like work documents and movies at high speeds.

Paulette Varble, a resident of St. Peter’s Rd. that has limited internet access.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com

In rural Indiana, connecting to the internet often depends on a connection requiring a line of sight to towers that relay signals from orbiting satellites.

In a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, there are still those in rural parts of Indiana that have limited access. Those without access are left without the ability to work from home, unable to access information for school or use the internet for entertainment.

For Varble, an employee at Med Mizer in Batesville, a lack of reliable internet connection meant giving up her goal of working from home. Varble’s only available internet option was a satellite connection that ran much too slow for her to work from home.

The Federal Communication Commission’s definition of broadband is a minimum 25 mbps, which would allow a sufficient speed for multiple people to stream video. However, these speeds are not adequate for those wishing to work from home.

“I feel that people out here are very disadvantaged because I mean there’s so much that you can’t do,” said Varble.

For students, not having a reliable internet connection is no longer an option. Many schools are making it a requirement for students to have internet access for homework.

When Varble’s daughter was in school, she would often have to go to the local library or a friend’s house that had internet.

Students in Richmond Community Schools in Richmond, Indiana, have similar issues.

Lisa Wilkerson, a teacher for Richmond Community Schools who is concerned about the impact lack of internet accessibility has on her students.

Richmond teacher Lisa Wilkerson said that a third of her 9-12 grade students struggle with having no internet due to either cost or availability.

“We went one-to-one with computers this year and some of the students can’t do homework outside of school, said Wilkerson. “They have to be able to finish it in school or go to a McDonald’s or library to their homework.”

Many textbooks are now only available online. Wilkerson has started making downloadable PDF files for her students so that they have access to their textbooks even when they do not have internet.

Wilkerson said that it is important that students have experience with the internet now as it will be something they interact with daily.

“They don’t need to have the best and fastest internet, but at least something so that they’re able to do research,” she said.

In 2014, former Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann put together a working group to improve rural internet access, which resulted in Broadband Ready communities.

Being a Broadband Ready certified community sends a signal to telecommunication industries that shows a community has taken steps to reduce the barriers to broadband infrastructure investment.

However, barriers to internet still exist in and outside of the Broadband Ready community system, including making the permitting process simpler, finding ways to compensate for the high cost of installing infrastructure, and the remote locations. Lawmakers are trying to streamline permitting to make it easier for companies to invest.

A section of St. Peter’s Rd. that only has access to satellite internet.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com

Rep. David Ober ,R-Albion, chair of the committee of utilities, energy and telecommunications, said there is also discussion around using the Indiana Universal Service Fund to extend internet service to remote area. The fund had been used to expand telephone service to rural areas in the past.

While these are welcomed solutions, it’s not quite the answer those looking for reliable internet quickly were looking for.

“We’ll have more time to vet out the issue over a couple of years and to figure out if there’s anything we need to do to either remove barriers to access and reduce cost, permitting or to even make investments,” said Ober.

Ober says the main focus when it comes to broadband is gaining ground with wired access. However, it is an expensive task especially when trying to reach areas of the state that are less densely populated.

“Anything you do you have to balance whether or not because they have access to wireless, whether it’s necessary for us to run fiber to the very last mile,” said Ober. “When you’re talking about running a line down a mile, it costs $22,000 and there may be half a dozen people there of which maybe three or four want to subscribe to the service.”

Rural Hoosiers who try to connect to the internet are often disappointed with the results.

Louis and Samantha Egbert, also residents of St. Peter’s Road, have one of the only forms of satellite internet that can be accessed in that area.

“I would have gotten the internet a long time ago, but it just doesn’t run fast enough,” Samantha Egbert said.

The Egberts recently had to purchase WI-FI for their son as his school has made the switch to chrome books.

“He has accessibility, it just takes him a while,” said Louis Egbert.

Samantha and Louis Egbert, residents of St. Peter’s Rd. that struggle with the slow speeds of satellite internet.
Photo by Makenna Mays, TheStatehouseFile.com

However, this is not the first time they have tried to get internet as Samantha was originally offered the opportunity to work from home, but was not able to as the internet speed was unreliable.

Ober acknowledged that the lack of access rural Hoosiers have to internet affects Indiana economically.

“It’s a huge economic development issue now because it’s less of a luxury item and more of a necessity especially in the business sector,” said Ober.

The Egberts are currently paying close to $70 a month for an internet plan that has a slower data speed than their phone plan.

“Not only do you have ineffectiveness, but we’re paying for a product that really just stinks,” said Louis Egbert.

Both Samantha and Louis need the internet for their jobs, but most downloads have to be completed at work as their current internet cannot support it.

“I thought WI-FI meant instant access and that’s not the case,” said Louis Egbert.

In the 21st century, the internet is used for entertainment as well as business, something rural Hoosiers are also living without.

“It’s also quality of life for more and more Hoosiers,” said Ober. “They want to be able to stream shows on Netflix and send emails back and forth.”

Ober is hopeful that with time, internet service will improve residents of rural Indiana.

“I think as technology progresses it will make it a better-quality service so overtime I think satellite services will get better,” said Ober.

Makenna Mays is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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