Bridging the digital divide: Indiana’s rural communities seek solutions to improve internet access

More and more, high-speed internet, also known as broadband, is considered a basic need as opposed to a mere luxury. The pandemic only underlined this fact. Many school and business functions have moved online. More people have access to care via telehealth. And some who’ve been socially isolated have looked to the internet as a lifeline to the outside world.
Yet, the so-called digital divide remains a reality for many Hoosiers, particularly in rural areas.
Numbers frame the story. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) defines areas “served” with high-speed internet as those having access to at least 25 megabits per second download (Mbps) and 3 Mbps upload, or 25/3 for short. According to a January 2021 report on the State of Digital Inclusion by Purdue University, about 261,300 Hoosiers—or 3.9 percent of the population—do not have access to this advertised 25/3 internet service. At the same time, COVID-19 has made many homes and office workers realize that even 25/3 is simply not enough bandwidth. In other words, it’s a matter of quality more than quantity.
Among 2,800 households studied across six rural communities in Indiana, 90 percent indicate they have internet access at home, yet 60 percent are unsatisfied with their home service.

Librarian Kristina Lay uses a computer at the Allen County Public Library's Monroeville branch at 115 Main St. in Monroeville.
Robert Gallardo, Ph.D., is intimately aware of these concerns. He is one of the study’s authors and the acting Director of the Next Level Broadband Connections at the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs (OCRA). Digging deeper, he says another challenge is the consistency of measuring internet speed, which means the depth of the issue at hand can be understated.
“The FCC dataset tends to overstate broadband availability, especially in rural areas, and so many governments and entities are using speed tests to counter what the FCC is saying,” he says.

Librarian Kristina Lay uses a computer at the Allen County Public Library's Monroeville branch at 115 Main St. in Monroeville.
Speaking of data, Gallardo says they have anecdotal evidence for why many rural residents lack affordable or reliable internet. For one, he says they might not simply have access. Or if they do, it’s not sufficient quality, so they decide to opt out. Third, they might be able to access it, but it’s not affordable.
Chris Wiljer, Branch Manager at the Monroeville Branch Library in rural Allen County, can corroborate these findings. Wiljer—who’s worked at the library for about 20 years—is often on the front lines of patron interaction and has seen a noticeable increase in library internet use during the pandemic.
“With more people working from home and kids being quarantined, we really saw an increase in use,” he says.

Branch Manager Christopher R. Wiljer helps Librarian Kristina Lay with the computer at the Allen County Public Library's Monroeville branch.
This additional volume at the library is no coincidence when you consider the circumstances at play in Monroeville either.
“There are a number of local internet services,” Wiljer says. "But my understanding is that the speed is slow; it's unreliable; and the cost can be quite high.”

Libraries are becoming a hot spot for many rural residents seeking reliable internet access during the pandemic.
Conversely, the library does have fast and reliable internet. Wiljer says patrons frequently use the library internet for work, schoolwork, telehealth, and to take care of tasks, like tax filing and applying for unemployment. People even use the library’s Wi-Fi in their parking lot, and their mobile hotspot hardware is a popular item to check out, Wiljer notes.
While these assets solidify the library’s role as a vital resource in its community, he feels it’s not a sustainable option for the library to act as the community’s primary internet source.
“I think it's going to require (more work) in terms of solving the problem of rural areas being underserved,” Wiljer says.

Libraries are becoming a hot spot for many rural residents seeking reliable internet access during the pandemic.
Wells County is a prime example. In 2019, Heartland Rural Electric Member Cooperative (REMC) announced its promise to provide high-quality Internet access via 3,000 miles of new fiber-optic infrastructure. Once complete, the network will serve around 20,000 members in four counties: Allen, Huntington, Wabash and Wells.
Chad Kline, who serves as Economic Development Director at Wells County Economic Development, is familiar with the project. He says since then Heartland REMC announced their broadband deployment through their entire electrical co-op network that will cover about a third of the rural areas in the county.
The issue isn’t as simple as relying on the principle of “if you build it, they’ll come.” However, internet providers conduct cost-benefit analyses when determining whether to invest in new markets. Oftentimes, rural areas aren’t a safe bet from a return-on-investment perspective.
“I think the biggest challenge is cost,” says Kline. “The cost of the infrastructure based off of your user rates in rural communities is always going to be a struggle. And honestly, it's even a struggle in smaller communities where you even have a decent amount of potential customers. That cost of entry is significant.”

A mobile hotspot that can be checked out at the Allen County Public Library's Monroeville branch.
For example, in some remote areas of the county there are two people living in a square mile area. From the provider perspective, this doesn’t make a compelling reason to make the investment. Kline also notes there are federal and state programs in place to address these financial obstacles, but they sound better in theory than in practice.
“Honestly (they don’t) put a dent in the amount of funding that's necessary to allow for the full development of broadband,” he says.
In the meantime, the school system and the library in southern Wells County have looked to stop-gap measures to address this challenge, Kline notes. For instance, like in Monroeville, the school has used COVID-related funds to purchase mobile hotspots.
“But, you know, while that helps, it doesn't solve the problem,” says Kline. “Thankfully, the school system and library… are making strides to fill in the gaps. But until we can get a better solution to the problem, we're still trying to explore how we can get more of our rural areas covered with broadband.”

A mobile hotspot that can be checked out at the Allen County Public Library's Monroeville branch.
As Associate State Director of Advocacy and Outreach at AARP Indiana, Addison Pollock is familiar with this landscape and is working to address parts of the issue on a broader scale in Indiana. AARP Indiana conducts outreach and local advocacy around issues that matter to people 50-plus and their families, allowing adults to have greater agency about how they live as they age.
In recent years, high-speed internet have become key livability assets with the capacity to connect socially isolated senior citizens to their communities. Research indicates that one in five older adults is socially isolated, so even before the pandemic, AARP has been working to address the digital divide among its key demographics. What the organization has found is that the issue is layered.
While access to quality, affordable internet is part of the equation, another part is improving digital literacy among older adults so they can participate in civic life and make their own voices heard on issues that matter to them. Indiana’s rural communities have disproportionately high populations of aging residents, too. This could mean a lack of connectivity for older adults disproportionately affects these areas and their representation.

Branch Manager Christopher R. Wiljer helps Librarian Kristina Lay with the computer at the Allen County Public Library's Monroeville branch.
One sign of progress Pollock sees toward a more equitable future is the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14 billion program that was part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021. It reduces internet cost and increases accessibility by providing discounted service to those who income-qualify, as well as a one-time discount on a device.
Pollock says he’s encouraged by AARP’s own programs, too, like OATS (Older Adults Technology Services), which launched in 2019 to provide both in-person and virtual digital literacy training and courses that help low-income seniors, leveraging technology, like iPads, to bridge the digital divide. However, according to the OATS website, in-person classes are limited to larger and distant cities, like New York, Palo Alto, and Denver.
While OATS offers a possible solution, Pollock points out that as younger generations with more digital experience age, the conversation will likely continue to evolve. Just as roads and bridges connect communities physically, the internet connects them digitally.

NOTE: A former version of this story stated that Comcast had pulled out of offering internet service in Monroeville. It never offered internet service in Monroeville. However, it did have an analog video service years ago, but the company sold the network.

This story is part of a series on the 8 Domains of Livability in Northeast Indiana, underwritten by AARP.
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.