By State Sen. Erin Houchin (R-Salem)
Growing up in Southern Indiana, and now representing our rural district in the State Senate, I consistently work to represent our Hoosier values and focus on the issues which matter most to my constituents. Some of these issues are common priorities across the state – supporting balanced budgets without raising taxes and while maintaining adequate reserves (something we should all be thankful to have these days); improving educational opportunities for children by adequately funding our schools and classrooms and ensuring every Hoosier child receives a quality education; and, keeping our communities safe by supporting law enforcement and holding criminals accountable for their actions. While my colleagues and I can agree on many issues, our rural southern Indiana communities face our own challenges and have unique needs other communities don’t face.
One of these issues is the lack of affordable and efficient high-speed broadband access. Since I was elected to the State Senate in 2014, I have made improving access to this vital service a top priority, and have introduced legislation each session to move to close the digital divide that exists in Southern Indiana.
In 2018, I authored legislation that created the framework for a state matching grant program for certain broadband deployment projects in unserved areas of the state. Only a handful of other states had similar grant programs prior to this legislation taking effect, and I’m proud of us for helping to incentivize rural broadband deployment. Prior to HEA 1065, we had no way of ensuring certain broadband funding would be prioritized for communities that need it most, therefore leaving the possibility that some areas with existing infrastructure would get funding instead and continually leaving underserved communities behind. Indiana’s Office of Community and Rural Affairs has since awarded Broadband Readiness Pilot Grants, and Next Level Connections Grants. While I am grateful for this investment, I know we still have work to be done.
Last session, I authored legislation to ensure grant funding is first going to areas who need broadband the most, and to prevent overbuilding where some infrastructure is already in place. This better process for applying for grants would have allowed for greater negotiation flexibility before awards were granted, allowing providers more time to finalize plans, provide new information, and guarantee buildouts would be targeted to the most unserved communities. Additionally, this legislation would have clarified higher upload and download speeds to ensure we are not just building basic broadband infrastructure, but building it at the quality needed to serve Hoosiers and compete in the global economy, now and into the future.
Some of the largest telecommunications companies lobbied against this legislation, while others took a neutral position. The bill was ultimately killed by the committee Chairman as he declined to allow a vote on the bill. I do not blame the big providers for not supporting my bill, as they were simply doing what they believed to be in their corporation’s best financial interests. Some providers choose not to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in rural areas because the return on investment isn’t as high as more densely populated cities and towns.
Incentivizing them to build where it’s needed most, and providing much needed support to smaller companies who can’t undertake such large projects on their own is our responsibility. I will continue to do whatever it takes to expand access to the last mile, despite any opposition.
We have always known that some of our communities are underserved by limited broadband access, but today these challenges are greater than ever. As we face the COVID-19 pandemic and Hoosiers are increasingly relying on working from home, Tele-Health services, E-Learning, online shopping for groceries and other essential supplies, staying in touch with family and loved ones, and more, the lack of broadband service is having real world consequences. These are unprecedented times, and it pains me to see my constituents and others around the state lacking such basic, yet vital technological resources. While I certainly and unequivocally support the free market, it is our duty to incentivize and support the buildout of affordable and efficient high-speed internet access to all Hoosiers.
I will continue fighting to ensure every Hoosier has the access they need to be successful, and will continue to work on creating public-private partnerships to bring access to unserved communities. I hope I can count on my colleagues to understand the importance of this mission, and join me.