A lack of broadband availability is causing problems for the southern part Indiana. That's the findings of a study by Purdue University in a five-county area of southern Indiana. The study was done for the Southern Indiana Development Commission at the request of the Martin County Business Alliance. It assessed the availability and need of broadband in Martin, Daviess, Lawrence, Knox and Greene counties
"It is a lot bigger problem than we thought," said Greg Jones, executive director for SIDC. "We have 9,000 households that lack access to broadband and there are a lot of kids in them. They can't get online and efficiently do their homework. It really puts them at a disadvantage."
"Broadband is critical to business, individual and student development," added Martin County Business Alliance Director Tim Kinder. "We wanted to identify what we have available in the region and work on what needs to be done to improve it. Broadband is a 21st Century infrastructure that is just as important as water and sewer. The availability of broadband needs to be the standard not the exception."
The study found that although there are 26 providers in the region less than one-third were able to offer a full service. The majority of homes only had access to one provider. About 21 percent or 33,440 people, have no access to broadband, and 44 percent had access to a single provider. Almost half of the households with children had limited or no access to broadband potentially widening the homework gap in the region.
"It is so much worse than we thought," said Kinder. "Martin County has the highest share of residences without access. That results in gross deficiencies when it comes to being able to compete with the rest of the state."
"Most of the cities and towns in our five-county region are OK," added Jones. "The issue is out in the country. We have a lot of businesses out in the rural areas. Their lack of broadband puts them at a competitive disadvantage. It makes it tough for them to expand."
In addition with the ties to Crane, many businesses in the area need broadband connectivity to compete.
"That is not just in Martin County, but the entire region," said Kinder. "It's not just defense either. It's all industries. There is more and more connectivity through technology and it is only going to increase. It's unbelievable the changes that are coming. We need to be a part of that."
The study shows that there is a long way to go and a potential for economic growth. Right now, with almost half of the businesses lacking broadband access, officials estimate the region lost about 10 percent of digital economy jobs. The SIDC region could see a potential economic benefit of $218 million over 15 years if all of the unserved households had broadband.
"Now that we know our situation, we need to start working toward solutions," said Kinder.
"We need to look at the options and see if we can come up with a fix," added Jones. "The problem is that most of the easy options don't seem to fit here."
Since broadband is critical to so many areas, officials say they feel they need to take a broad approach to try and find the solution to expanding the availability. "We are working with our local economic development organizations, schools, local government, REMCs and municipal utilities. Some of those organizations are adverse to risk. We need to find options and begin working toward the next steps," he said.
Broadband availability in the rural areas of southern Indiana is something that will most likely require a big answer that will not come easily. "We are just at the beginning of where we go to resolve the broadband issue," said Kinder. "All of us are in the same boat."
"It's remarkable how it can impact businesses," said Jones. "In Knox County, a lot of the melon farmers who are trying to do business online have to go into Vincennes," said Jones. "They wind up losing time they could spend in the fields. It has turned into a recruiting issue for businesses trying to fill vacant jobs. It's bigger than anyone thought and no one was working on it."
Officials are hoping to convene a summit of government and business leaders in the region to try and find the answer. "It's going to take some time and work," said Jones. "I hope there is a simple solution, but I just don't see it yet."
BY THE NUMBERS
Five-county region — Martin, Daviess, Lawrence, Knox and Greene
26 Internet providers
21 percent have no access, or 33,440 people
44 percent can only access one provider
Potential for future economic benefit = $218 million over 15 years, if all unserved had access to broadband