High Speed Solution: Rural Whitley Co. residents hopeful for internet infrastructure

Published: Sep. 7, 2022 at 5:44 PM EDT
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WHITLEY COUNTY, Ind. (WPTA21) - Discussion about bringing broadband access to rural parts of Northeast Indiana are happening in Whitley County. Wednesday morning, several eager residents showed up to the monthly county council meeting to vocalize support for a plan to bring fiber internet infrastructure to remote parts of the area. Commissioner Theresa Baysinger has been working with Surf Internet as a potential company to make it happen. “Whitley County unfortunately — we have a much lower population, so we don’t have as many providers that are willing to come here,” she said. “We even have some of my constituents that have dial-up internet.”

August 2, Surf Internet CEO Gene Crusie gave a presentation to county council on how they would build internet infrastructure, and how much it would cost. “We believe that broadband is the great equalizer,” he said during the meeting, which was shared on Youtube. Crusie told county council it would take $1.7 million dollars, which would come Whitley County’s American Rescue Plan Act fund, to get started. “We received over $6 million dollars,” Baysinger added. “There are about five categories you can spend those funds on. One of those categories is broadband internet.” Some however, expressed concerned about tapping into such a high dollar amount, to effectively help out a little over 750 households. Cost and implementation is one of the biggest barriers to getting high-speed internet access to those in rural areas. “Building broadband is expensive… if we don’t do it now, who ever will?” Crusie told ABC21. “When you build a road, you don’t always think about the return on investment — you think about what the road does for the community. And broadband is similar in that it delivers a capability to the community that improves their lifestyle.”

But Crusie did put in into perspective. An average home in the city, would cost around $1,300 to install fiber internet. To build infrastructure for homes outside cities in the county, it can cost over $6,000. Those who expressed their desire for such an investment to county council, included a local doctor, content creator, photographer, and more. One man told officials, he’s had the same DSL internet provider, for the last eighteen years. Another, expressed frustration for having to drive to work in Fort Wayne, to perform Telehealth services. Dakota Kreps, a Whitley County native, spoke publicly at the meeting. He has no affiliation with Surf Internet, but happens to have a strong background in fiber internet and installation. He asked for county council to consider supporting the potential project — with hopes that his family can eventually build their dream home in the country. “I built a house here in Columbia city,” Kreps shared. “We were going to build out there, but my fiancé owns a marketing company. My son has e-learning. I’m in ISP (internet service provider) — it’s not feasible.”

“Yes, I had acreage out there,” he continued. “Yes, I had family land — As much as I’d love to have that acreage and build on it, our everyday lives are truly based around internet.”

Not all agree — Whitley County Sheriff Marcus Gatton spoke against using the government funds for several reasons. “If they could provide it for the whole county, I could see it,” he told county council. “But we’re only going to touch 700-and-some residents of the 30,000 in Whitley County.” He added, “It’s just my opinion — it’s your guys’ vote, but the money invested is just not as good of a return.”

Whitley County Council president Timothy Kumfer reminded those in attendance that the discussions were simply that. The process of seriously considering if that $1.7M would actually be invested is several weeks away. “I agree with them completely, that we need broadband, more significant internet across the community,” Kumfer told us after the meeting. “No one has spoken against that from the council — but we want to be procedurally correct. The federal rules have become more stringent, and even though broadband is within the money can be spent on, we must have the proposal and the ordinance from the commissioners first.”

That’s been a priority for Baysinger, who hopes to have the ordinance completed, with the support of other commissioners before the next county council meeting in October. “I do understand that it’s not overnight, going to give every single rural citizen fantastic internet,” she explained. “However, we have to start somewhere. Once we get this infrastructure built out to these 700-odd some homes, it makes it so much easier to break out to the more rural areas.”

Though it’s not definite what building internet infrastructure looks like for Whitley County, or how such a task will be funded, most agree the time to do so, is now. “At this point, we are behind other counties in the region,” Kumfer said. “We understand for the growth of Whitley County, which is a wonderful county to live in, and all the aspects of a rural community are available. For that to continue to grow, we need broadband internet throughout the county.”

Expanding rural access to broadband internet is also of statewide and national interest. In April, Governor Holcomb announced $189-million dollar investment to contribute to such infrastructure. His administration reports the Next Level Connections Broadband Grant program has directly contributed $268-million dollars of building, impacting 74,800 homes and commercial locations across 83 counties.

Stay with ABC21 for updates on the “high speed solution” developments across Northeast Indiana.

The video above includes Surf Internet’s detailed presentation for expanding fiber internet infrastructure in select parts of Whitley County.