As one electric cooperative in Indiana is engaged in a project to offer broadband, another project close by is in the works. As rural cooperatives take steps to offer broadband, local communities want to help local co-ops deploy in their areas.
Jackson County Project Moving Ahead
Last summer, Jackson County Rural Electric Membership Corporation (REMC) announced that they had finalized a plan to deploy Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to every service member within their 1,400 square mile service area.
With the strong support of Jackson County leadership, the cooperative started work on phase 1, a plan to establish a backbone through most of the ten counties where REMC members live and work. The first phase of the extensive $60 million project is about one-third finished. This phase will also allow the co-op the chance to connect the first 990 premises in order to work out any issues and refine services before reaching more homes and businesses. As they finish up the first phase, REMC is beginning to plan phase 2.
At a January meeting that involved community leaders in the region and cooperatives, REMC General Manager Mark McKinney provided an update:
“We are in the process now of evaluating where phase two will be. We’re about a third of the way through phase one, which was approximately 330 miles of fiber optic cable being installed. When this is all said and done, if everything goes as planned, we’ll be looking at over 2,000 miles of fiber being installed. This is not fiber to the curb, this will be fiber all the way into the home.”
REMC expects to start serving approximately 1,000 customers in the Brownstown areas in February.
When the State Legislature passed SB 478, REMC was able to deploy fiber easier and faster. The bill, also known as the Facilitating Internet Broadband Rural Expansion (FIBRE) Act, updated existing law for cooperatives. Prior to the FIBRE Act, easements existed for electrical infrastructure but did not extend to fiber optic lines. SB 478 allows electric cooperatives with existing easements for electrical lines to apply those easements to fiber optic infrastructure. The change removed was described by the bill’s author as “a major impediment.”
McKinney reiterated that the project will reach every member of the cooperative with affordable broadband that offers a minimum of 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) download. He likened the project to rural electrification by cooperatives. “That’s the same mentality we’re using with this,” he said.
Meeting Up In Brown County
The expansive project will potentially serve about 1,000 members in Brown County who current receive electricity service from REMC. Brown County leaders were at the January meeting and expressed their enthusiasm for the project and for another broadband deployment in the works by another electric cooperative, South Central Indiana REMC (SCI-REMC). Brown County Council President Keith Baker:
“We’re so excited about it. We want to be on the cusp of what’s happening….
Whatever it is you need in talking with your board, or whatever decision you make, you’re going to find a very, very eager audience in Brown County for high-speed Internet. I can’t tell you how much we love having you guys here.”
In Brown County, SCI-REMC provides electricity to approximately 6,000 premises, which are a large percentage of the homes and businesses in the county. CEO of SCI-REMC, James Tanneberger, told attendees at the January meeting that his cooperative is in the planning phase of a FTTH project much like the Jackson County REMC project. SCI-REMC plans to announce in March where the four-year project will begin deployment. One of the challenges SCI-REMC faces includes heavily wooded state forest land, but they are also considering expanding to nonmembers in the future.
Local government boards from Brown County requested that SCI-REMC put the county near the top of the list. The co-op received similar requests from other entities, including the school board, a town council, and the county health board.
Brown County’s population is around 15,000 over approximately 316 square miles. There’s a state forest in Brown County along with a State Park and the county seat of Nashville is a tourist attraction. In the early 1900s, an art colony sprang up there and the town is still known as an art center.
At the January meeting, county officials and the local Broadband Task Force let SCI-REM know that the County was willing to help in any way they could to speed along the deployment. Lack of high-quality connectivity has interfered with home purchases in Brown County and community leaders are looking for economic development tools. SCI-REMC sees mutual benefit from collaboration.
“In a world where your load isn’t growing, that can get challenging when your expenses continue to grow. So we see broadband as important to economic development and important to the survival of rural Indiana, and important to [SCI-REMC], also, because of the economic development aspect of it,” [Tanneberger] said.