Broadband project ‘game-changer’ for Crawford County
By Stephanie Taylor Ferriell, Senior Staff Writer, [email protected]
Sometimes, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, even if that wheel has to squeak a while before being greased. State Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, compared the evolution of the state’s rural broadband access grant program to the familiar adage.
Houchin spoke at the official local announcement last Wednesday at South Crawford Elementary School.
Crawford County was awarded a $3.06 million grant in the second round of funding for the Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program following an unsuccessful application last year.
Upon being elected to the Indiana House in 2014, Houchin said she immediately began working to address the lack of broadband access in Southern Indiana.
“District 47 is one of the most unserved in the state,” she said.
She was initially told by broadband company representatives that they would never support a public-private partnership toward such a goal and that they had basically no interest in expanding in very rural areas because of the low return on investment.
Undeterred, Houchin filed a bill to establish a grant program for rural broadband access funding, something only two other states had done at the time. Eventually, those telecommunications company representatives pulled chairs up to the table.
Houchin authored Senate Enrolled Act 460 in 2019, which established the rural broadband fund. She thanked State Rep. Steve Bartels, R-Eckerty, for his support.
Houchin recalled a social event at which she and Bartels cornered Gov. Eric Holcomb to convince him that rural broadband access would never happen without significant state support.
“Our pestering really got his attention,” she told those gathered last week.
Holcomb designated $100 million for the fund.
Mainstream Fiber Networks was awarded the contract for the project.
Mainstream’s Mark Gabriel said the project will serve 1,041 unserved households, 128 businesses and 25 anchor institutions in Crawford County. He said engineering work is currently underway, with construction likely to begin in the second quarter of 2021. He estimated the project, which will involve installing more than 100 miles of fiber-optic cable, will take about a year to complete.
The total project cost is more than $5.77 million with a local match of $2.71 million. Mainstream will provide nearly all of the matching funds — $2.6 million — with the county chipping in $933,000.
The county’s successful grant application was truly a community effort. Many residents completed surveys, attended meetings and wrote letters of support. The state meeting at which those items were submitted was “a game-changer,” said Gabriel.
“Our community and our economy must grow and, with the NLC connections grant, coupled with the public and private investment, Crawford County will be able to grow population, young families and drive the next generation of entrepreneurs to the county,” Michael Thissen, executive director of the Crawford County Economic Development Corp., who took the lead in engaging Mainstream and led the community effort to obtain the necessary input needed, said in a statement. “We could not do this without high-speed fiber.
“This was a total community and team effort to complete the monumental task of not only drilling down the data to the specific house in a census block, but also a credit to the more than 900 surveys and emails gathered from 17 public meetings, planning sessions and town halls,” he said. “In our strategic planning efforts, high-speed fiber access was the No. 1 challenge and need.”
Thissen continued, “There were so many people who led this effort with us. Most notably are all of the county elected officials who see the critical need to secure our future and unanimously support the initiative. I am also in appreciation to Craig Menke who, as a business owner and chair of the EDC Business Council, took up the mantle at a critical time when the challenge was particularly heavy.”
Christine Harbeson, executive director of the Community Foundation of Crawford County, added, “The Community Foundation is thrilled about fiber-optic cable coming to Crawford County. The future of our community just got exponentially brighter. Many thanks to everyone who worked tirelessly to make this a reality. We have had such a good experience working with Mainstream, Economic Development and the leadership and people of Crawford County.
“The surveys our community has completed provided the push we needed to make this a reality,” she added. “Thank you one and all.”
Morton Dale, president of the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, said the support the community showed for the project was unprecedented.
“The entire community clearly communicated how much high-speed internet was needed,” he said. “ … This is a game-changing moment in Crawford County’s history. Today, we go forward to the future.”
Dale had said in a statement that “in order for us to keep our kids here and for young families to be here and for the increase in business potential, including tourism, we need to move forward into the future. Broadband will do just that.
“In light of the current situation with school kids needing faster connectivity at home, the need is even greater than ever before,” he said. “It was really the community voice that we heard loud and clear.”