COVID-19 pandemic brings up issue of internet access, speed in Wabash Valley

Special Report

VIGO COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — Internet access is something that people didn’t even think about a few decades ago. Now, it’s something that more than half of Americans say has been “essential” during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.

For Lori Davidson, a Vigo County resident and mother, internet connectivity is a headache.

“We barely have any internet access at our home,” Davidson said.

Davidson’s family lives close to the Terre Haute Regional Airport, an area she said she doesn’t consider to be “rural”. Nonetheless, when her son’s schooling went online in the spring, there didn’t seem to be much access for him to connect with his classmates.

“He had weekly Zoom meetings with his class,” Davidson said, “And trying to hook it up, it would glitch and he couldn’t talk to anybody.”

Similar issues were the focus for Vigo County school leaders as they took the lessons of the spring and channeled them into planning for the current school year.

“Over the summer, our curriculum department purchased all sorts of at-home tools,” Vigo Co. School Corp. Director of Communications Bill Riley said, “We’re talking textbooks, we’re talking some digital resources, all things that can be used in the classroom but if we have to switch to remote learning, it’s going to be a resource rich environment.”

But the pandemic has brought up an internet access need that’s much bigger than just remote learning.

“I’ve heard from a wide range of folks concerned about broadband,” Senator Jon Ford said, “From K-12 students, businesses, and then folks who are trying to work from home.”

The widespread need for faster internet is evident in state data, which showed that in 2018, 19 percent of Vigo County residents had no internet access, and more than 30 percent of residents in Sullivan, Parke, and Daviess Counties had no internet access.

Sen. Ford pointed to two recent bills passed in the Indiana Statehouse to help with internet access; House Enrolled Act 1065 awarding grants to broadband providers in unserved parts of the state, and Senate Enrolled Act 460 establishing a rural broadband fund.

“The state of Indiana has put hundreds of millions of dollars into broadband expansion over the last few years, but then when you get to the local level, that last mile, right, getting to the residential homes is extremely expensive.”

One local internet provider, Joink, has been working to bring high-speed internet to parts of the Wabash Valley for two decades now.

“We utilize grain legs, water towers, rooftops, any vertical assets that we can to install fixed wireless equipment to build terrestrial fixed wireless equipment into homes and businesses,” Joink President and CEO Josh Zuerner said, “We also now have fiber optic networks throughout West Central Indiana that we use to connect our own towers.”

Tips and info for people dealing with internet access/speed issues:

Zuerner said their work can only expand through funding and support on the federal, state, and local level.

Davidson, meanwhile, urged leaders to continue to prioritize broadband access funding, as her patience dwindles with each disconnect.

“I would love for them to move a little faster on this,” Davidson said, “Because, you know, we’re in 2020 here; everyone should have internet access.”

Sen. Ford urged locals to call their local lawmakers and their internet providers to encourage further development of broadband access and speed.

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