Lawmakers to look at rural broadband

By Joseph Slacian

An interesting legislative session is in store for Indiana, largely because the state is in “uncharted waters and a lot different time,” one local lawmaker believes.

State Sen. Andy Zay made the remarks during a recent ZOOM meeting sponsored by Grow Wabash County to look at the upcoming 122nd General Assembly.

Zay and newly elected State Rep. Craig Snow discusses their take on the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 4, as well as their views on various topics broached by those watching online.

ZOOM meetings have been helpful and beneficial, Zay believes, “but I do look forward to getting back with my colleagues” to take part in the business of the State of Indiana.

For Snow, who is replacing longtime legislator Dave Wolkins, this session will have a totally new experience, more so because of COVID-19 and not just because he is a freshman legislator.

“The representatives have been moved to a different building all together to do our session,” he said.

Both Zay, R-Huntington, and Snow, R-Warsaw, believe that one of the main topics of discussion will be rural broadband access in Indiana. The need for better broadband was made evident this year during the lockdown caused by the pandemic.

“When the shutdown began in march and April, it was very evident to many the challenges we were facing as far as connectivity,” he said.

Many school corporations around the state were ill-prepared for the eLearning that took up the last three months of the 2019-20 school year. The Fort Wayne school district, for example, was not yet ready for eLearning, Zay noted.

“We sent our students home,” he continued. “Many of our rural students had dramatic challenges in being able to access their studies and their work from home.”

Schools weren’t the only ones adversely affected by the lockdown.

“Businesses working remotely had challenges in connecting remotely,” Zay said. “Some had to come in simply because of service, or lack of service.”

Broadband access also is important because of health-related issues.

Parkview Health’s telehealth program saw a 10,500 percent increase in use during the pandemic.

“It’s clear that won’t remain itself at that level,” Zay said, “but it’s also clear that (telehealth) is here to stay.”

In spite of the problems, Zay noted Indiana has made some strides in addressing the matter, however, he continued, “we have to do better on that.”

In the last budget cycle, the General Assembly passed a $100 million rollout of funding for rural broadband.

To date, Zay said, Gov. Eric Holcomb has apportioned about $75 million of that for projects that connected 21,500 Hoosier households.

“We’re a long way from home,” the senator said. “Leadership has to keep pitching forward with this, and we have to find a way to work with all of our providers to get them to reach out for the last mile. That’s really the problem we have right now.”

Senators are hoping to craft some comprehensive legislation this year to address the matter, Zay said. In addition, lawmakers are working on another piece that “could be a game changer for the State of Indiana.”

Snow, like Zay, believes the pandemic showed the real need for a solution to the program.

“It really highlighted a need,” he said. “In my own house, working from home, my wife is a teacher working from home, my daughter is in college and she was home doing her homework and taking exams on the internet.

“It was frustrating, but at least we had access.”

Rural broadband was declared the top priority for the 2021 legislative session by the Mayors and Commissioners Caucus of Northeast Indiana on Dec. 17.

The Caucus supports the expansion of resources to increase access to broadband and expand connectivity for Northeast Indiana, including funding to expand access to high-speed, reliable internet, according to a news release from the organization.

Holcomb, in his 2021 legislative agenda also released Dec. 17, included maintaining and building the state’s infrastructure, under which falls rural broadband.

The governor said he will grow his nation-leading Next Level Connections Broadband Program with legislation to better reach additional areas of the state that are unserved or underserved with higher internet speeds.


Posted on 2020 Dec 29