Win-Win-Win: Telecom, Rural Electric, and Fiber Can Solve Indiana’s Digital Divide

By now, it is probably clear that we’re passionate here at IFN about closing the digital divide in Indiana. It’s not an overstatement to say that internet connectivity is a basic necessity today – not quite on the same level as food, water, and electricity, but pretty darned close. Hoosiers across the state don’t just want high-speed connectivity, they need it. We want to ensure they can be connected, whether that’s to run their business website or complete online ordering.

In our previous post, we talked about ILECs – the local telephone companies that make up IFN’s member/owners and connect their customers to the internet via phone lines and fiber. And we have talked about REMCs – rural electric membership cooperatives that provide electricity to rural communities and households and operate under the umbrella of electric generation and transmission (G&T) cooperatives. When IFN started out in 2002, the aim of the company was to provide the high-speed network that helped connect our 20 telecom member/owners. In the past 16 years, IFN and our member/owners have grown to be well-oiled machines, laying fiber and connecting customers across the state. Our company and our member/owners have done a good job, but there is much more to do to ensure that high speed connectivity reaches every part of the state.

Enter: Electric Cooperatives

There is a strong demand for bandwidth in communities that are serviced by REMCs. In fact, the number one issue brought up at electric co-op meetings isn’t electricity, but broadband. REMCs and umbrella G&Ts may not have specialized expertise in internet connectivity, but what they do have are great infrastructure networks. Could IFN and its member/owners partner with the rural electric co-ops to utilize those networks to build out fiber lines and enhance connectivity across the state of Indiana? We think so!

Partnering with REMCs is not without its challenges, of course. Although they share similar historical missions, rural telephone companies and rural electric co-ops have not traditionally been asked to share ownership or operation of their networks. Both may bristle at the idea of sharing these responsibilities rather than “just doing it ourselves,” as these companies have traditionally done for nearly 100 years.

But the opportunity is promising and potentially huge: rural electric co-ops have the infrastructure networks to access even some of the hardest-to-serve areas of the state, but they generally lack the telephone and broadband connectivity expertise required to operate highly complex fiber networks.  Rural telecom providers have the expertise, but not necessarily the infrastructure or the capital to ensure high speed connectivity to every hard-to-serve area of the state. By working together, rural electric co-ops will be able to meet the increasingly insistent (and understandable) demands of their members for high-speed bandwidth, and small telecom providers will have an opportunity to expand their reach outside of their own service areas by helping to operate the electric co-op’s fiber networks. “Win-win-win” has become a somewhat trite phrase, but it perfectly describes the opportunity in front of rural telecom companies and rural electric companies.

No one partnership model is going to be perfect. Business arrangements between IFN, REMCs, and ILECs are going to come in different forms, but no matter the model, many underserved communities – indeed, the entire state of Indiana – will benefit.

At IFN, we believe we can play the role of “matchmaker” – the facilitator of win-win-win partnerships between these two industries – all with an eye towards bringing high-speed fiber connectivity to rural Hoosier businesses and homes. Ultimately, the real winners are the rural Indiana consumers who will have access to high-speed broadband no matter how far they live from a city.

Interested in being part of the solution of connecting rural Indiana with fiber broadband? We’d love to hear from you.

Read part 1 and part 2 of this blog post series.