In a digital world, spotty internet still leaves parts of west central Indiana in the slow lane of the information superhighway.
The result, advocates say, is hurting efforts to attract jobs and people to rural areas.
“This is not a luxury anymore, this is a utility,” said Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, a longtime champion of expanding broadband access.
From 2000-2016, rural areas saw the largest surge of adults who use the internet, according to the Pew Research Center, but relatively low populations and greater distance from access points can leave rural residents with unreliable or no high speeds.
Nationwide, just 63 percent of rural residents had home broadband service in 2016, according to Pew. By comparison, more than three-quarters of urban residents were connected.
Indiana is the 34th most broadband-connected state, according to consumer advocacy site BroadbandNow. More than 80 percent of Hoosiers surf on high speeds.
Last summer, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law a bill sponsored by Negele requiring broadband-ready communities to establish a plan to add more wireless internet customers. Another law gave electric co-ops the go-ahead to extend fiber lines.
Tipmont REMC is finalizing a broadband feasibility study for its 22,800 members in eight counties surrounding Crawfordsville and Lafayette. The study should be presented to the board of directors in the coming months, communication director Rob Ford said.
A mid-2015 survey showed 93 percent of Tipmont’s southern service area was not connected to broadband.
“We definitely recognize that there is a tremendous need, especially once you get outside the metro areas of Crawfordsville and Lafayette,” Ford said.
Parke County REMC can support other companies offering broadband, but currently doesn’t run its own service. The cooperative has more than 12,000 members in Montgomery and surrounding counties.
The latest attempt to offer coverage, called Broadband Over the Power Line, failed four years ago.
“We had it up and running, but the company we were working with actually went bankrupt and we had to take that away from our members at that time,” said Carolyn Kilby, manager of marketing, communications and office services.
For Negele, rural energy co-ops and telephone companies are the low-hanging fruit for getting more people online. She wants to incentivize the companies to provide service, using possible funding from the state’s utility receipt tax and universal service fee.
Negele is also working to update language on underserved populations and map the state’s coverage areas.
The lack of reliable internet is a frequent issue among constituents stretching from western Montgomery County to the Chicago metropolitan area. All but the Lafayette area in Negele’s district has lost population.
“If we don’t have the appropriate infrastructure out there, how are we going to draw people back into the district?” she said.