Indiana aims to keep local communities informed about BEAD

All states are tackling broadband accessibility in some way, but each is taking its own approach. What Indiana’s focusing on, according to deputy broadband director Earnie Holtrey, is getting everyone on the same page about the broadband landscape, particularly with the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program.

He told Fierce in his office’s community engagement sessions with counties, “one of the questions right away that we ask is who’s heard of BEAD, and usually it’s 25% to 50% of the room.”

“That’s a pretty small percentage, I think, given that we are inviting leaders from schools, hospitals, libraries, community foundations, chambers of commerce, local elected officials,” Holtrey went on to say. “So I think no matter how much we engage at the local level and how good the tools our federal partners give us at the state level…task-wise messaging is going to be very important.”

He noted communication has to be done on the “micro level” with each individual city, town or county that lacks broadband connectivity, so that they can prepare for the BEAD funds that will roll in next year.

“When we go and start asking for right-of-way access and going across areas of a small community, that can delay a project for months right?” Holtrey said. “So, how do we start working with our local stakeholders now, and not next year after we award the first round of grants and everybody’s trying to pull permits and get that process started.”

“Messaging from top to bottom is an issue for all the states right now. And that’s what I’m experiencing for sure,” he added.

Infrastructure hurdles

In terms of infrastructure challenges in Indiana, Holtrey pointed out access to electric and telephone poles “is always an issue, no matter who the owner is.”

The state’s broadband office has asked local stakeholders to “facilitate meetings with the ISPs and the pole owners to try to speed that up.”

Not only is Indiana trying to help locals understand “where their infrastructure actually is,” but Holtrey noted the state needs to “continue to do a better job [with] our permitting process and our approval process and get our permits in and out the door per state locations quickly as well.”

One permitting issue Indiana has been working on is when fiber crosses railroad tracks. Much of the state has a “significant number” of railroad tracks that are still operational, said Holtrey.

“For obvious safety reasons, we can’t have a company come in and dig a big hole under the railroad and shoot their conduit and their fiber through there,” he explained. “There has to be a process and it has to be safe, there [have] to be flaggers involved and there [have] to be no trains running on the tracks at the time. And it needs to be a certain depth and meet all kinds of requirements.”

“That takes time because there’s a lot of people making those decisions. And it’s costly for the ISP and it’s costly for the railroad,” Holtrey added.

Geography also plays a role into infrastructure placement. Southern Indiana has more hills, valleys and riverbeds compared to the northern part of the state, which means fiber isn’t as easy to install in those areas.

“At the same time, it also makes it difficult to put up poles and wireless connectivity becomes difficult because of all the hills and valleys and the larger number of trees in the southern part of the state,” Holtrey said. “So, we definitely anticipate our buildout in the southern part of the state can be more expensive than the north because of that terrain.”

Role of rural co-ops

Although Holtrey noted many providers are making progress in broadband connectivity, he particularly highlighted the work done by rural electric cooperatives.

Thirty-eight rural electric co-ops currently exist in Indiana, and 26 of those “have broadband projects or planned broadband projects in the near future.”

“The other dozen or so are very eager to talk about giving access to their utility poles if an ISP wants to come in, they simply aren’t interested in becoming an ISP right now,” Holtrey said.

He also pointed out the rural electric membership co-ops (REMCs) provide service to roughly two-thirds of the state. Last summer, two Indiana co-ops struck a partnership to bolster rural deployments.

“I can definitely say the REMCs in Indiana are great partners. But then we also have good relationships with the big guys in the [Indiana] Cable and Broadband Association and the former large telephone companies that have now begun to actively upgrade their copper systems to fiber,” said Holtrey.