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Programs, businesses bringing broadband to rural areas

by Tim Tedeschi - ttedeschi@chronicle-tribune.com

Federal programs and local businesses are working to expand broadband internet connectivity for rural parts of Grant County.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday authorized nearly $14.9 million in funding over the next decade to connect rural Indiana homes and businesses to broadband access as part of the fifth wave of the Connect America Fund Phase II auction, according to a press release.

Grant County is set to receive a $161,008 investment over the next 10 years to bring broadband to 171 locations in the county through the W.A.T.C.H. TV Company. A June FCC authorization provided $6,960 of investment in Grant County broadband through Mercury Wireless Indiana.

“In rural areas stretching from Elkhart to Evansville, from the Ohio line to Illinois, the FCC is helping bring broadband to unserved parts of Indiana,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in the release. “It’s critical that rural communities in Indiana have the same access to digital opportunity that urban areas do. I’m pleased that today’s funding will support broadband to more than 11,500 unserved rural homes and businesses in the state.”

Providers using federal funding must have at least 40 percent of the assigned homes and businesses connected to broadband at specified speeds within three years of the fund disbursement. Build-up of service must then increase by 20 percent each year until the full scope of the project is reached.

County Commissioner Mark Bardsley said he and his fellow commissioners have encouraged local companies to apply for other state and federal grant funding to work toward full broadband accessibility in the county.

“The world has gone to where we are all about connectivity and being able to access not only information but all the new apps that turn on lights, lock doors, turn on different types of mechanisms we have in our house now,” he said. “It’s unbelievable the advancement in technology and broadband access not only allows that to happen, but for those who want to do searches, keep in touch with social media, all those things, the broadband experience is something that’s positive for the community at large.”

Tim Eckerle of the Grant County Economic Growth Council said his team works with local vendors to apply for grant money and expand access.

“Broadband and high speed internet is the lifeblood of the communities of the future,” he said.

Eastern Indiana Wifi Inc., run by brothers Gregg and Randy Ballinger, is one of the local companies hard at work to provide more rural residents internet access at high speeds.

The Ballingers said the company serves the eastern portion of the county, including Washington Township, Gas City, Jonesboro, Fairmount, Matthews, Upland and Van Buren, as well as parts of Blackford, Wells and Huntington counties.

“Our goal is 25 (megabits per second speed) to any of our customers that want it. We still have customers on slower service which was more than adequate five years ago, but it’s not adequate any more,” Gregg said.

Randy said while the company has been in business for 15 years, the last three years have seen expansive growth due to advancements in technology.

“The stuff we were putting up five years ago, we’re pulling that stuff down and putting new stuff up, and we’re bootstrapping this stuff ourself,” he said.

Local governments and communities have been receptive to working with the Ballingers, Gregg said, with the biggest obstacles being cash flow and finding or building more towers in the area for equipment installation.