The Jennings County Commissioners brought the county one step further into the future and closer to connecting the rural areas of Jennings to the World Wide Web after agreeing to sign an infrastructure development zone ordinance at their meeting on June 10.
Bryan Miller, Director of Information, Technology and Diversified Services for Southeastern Indiana (SEI) REMC, addressed the Commissioners with the ordinance with the goal of helping ease the cost of providing fiber internet to the rural communities they serve. Cost is a big hurdle due to very low member density and the REMC has addressed all counties in their seven-county service territory asking for a six-year tax exemption in order to install the equipment essential for providing broadband internet to their underserved clients.
SEI REMC is a member-owned electric distribution cooperative. Their mission is to safely provide electricity and diversified services to the members and communities they serve. In response to a survey conducted in 2019, their members expressed a desperate need for broadband access in their seven-county service area.
Broadband is defined as high-speed internet with speeds of 25/3. SEI Fiber speeds will start at 100/100 with the top tier being 1GB.
“Broadband helps close the digital divide between rural and urban communities and provides many opportunities such as education, telehealth, e-learning, small business growth, and increased property values,” said Bryan Miller. “It also opens the door for new technologies that have not been developed yet.”
Due to the cost of a project of this magnitude and the growing digital divide between the rural and urban communities, Miller says that many see the REMC as their only hope to receive quality internet service. “The need for broadband connectivity in rural areas today is similar to the need for electricity that existed in 1939 when the co-op was formed.”
As awareness of the critical need for broadband internet in southeast Indiana grew, the Southeastern Indiana Regional Planning Commission began working with Purdue to conduct a State of Broadband study. In this study report, Purdue states that the cooperative model is the only avenue for rural communities to get broadband connectivity, due to the lack of customer density. This model was successful during the electrification of rural America and with the help of community leaders, members, and the co-op, it can work for broadband, too.
As it was mentioned at the Commissioners’ meeting on June 10, if COVID-19 has taught officials anything, it’s the importance and necessity of internet connectivity. Many rural areas in Jennings have been underserved in this regard for decades and it seems SEI REMC and the Commissioners’ hope is to build the infrastructure now in order to work towards a future with seamless, reliable connectivity for the younger generation.
“To me, the benefits outweigh the negatives. We have to start somewhere,” said Commissioner Matt Sporleder.
As to why steps hadn’t yet been taken to fill this need, Sporleder continued by saying “Because it’s not economically feasible. The usage isn’t going to make up for the cost of installation.”
Which is where REMC’s request for a six-year tax exemption comes in. The tax exemption allows REMC to forgo the payment of property taxes on the initial fiber network build to their membership. After the six-year timeframe all maintenance, repairs and upgrades will be taxed at the normal rate.
“My main concern is that it’s basically going to be waving taxes that could be collected, that’s waving benefits that tax payers would see,” said Sporleder. “We’re going to be waving that to get this built. But not all tax payers are going to benefit.”
However, Sporleder says that he and the other commissioners recognize that it won’t benefit everyone at first, but if the project can get started, hopefully the community as a whole can build on that.
“We have to have this for the kids.”
According to Miller, REMC members are encouraged to visit https://www.seiremc.com/content/sei-fiber to check eligibility and preregister for service. Once the service address is entered, a map appears showing the areas they intend to serve along with a general timeline for when they expect to provide service in those areas.
“We have an aggressive build schedule and hope to provide service to all our broadband deprived members in three to four years,” said Miller. REMC offers basic, plus, and premium residential packages and basic and premium commercial plans.