Bridging the digital divide • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Bridging the digital divide

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How to reach millions locked out of modern life with high-speed internet

Steve Carender
Steve Carender

Most of us have experienced that one person on web conferences whose connection is continually glitchy and cutting out. Perhaps you’re that person — struggling to work from home only to be faced with slow and unreliable internet service.

If so, you’re not alone. For millions of rural residents across Indiana and the U.S., working from home is frustrating if not impossible. E-learning days are a scramble. Telehealth and virtual consultations, while they would be convenient, are out of reach. Football fans without a reliable internet connection are out of luck on Thursday nights because games are streamed on Amazon Prime.

At this point, we are so bound to the internet for work, school and quality of life, that high-speed internet, not just any internet, is a necessity for modern living. High-speed internet service should now be considered a utility — ubiquitous, dependable and available on demand.

Imagine not knowing if you will have clean water, or any water at all, every time you turn on your faucet. What would quality of life be if you had to turn off your refrigerator and hope that you can have enough electricity to use your dishwasher? That’s not to say that data is on equal footing with water in terms of human survival, yet the fact remains that internet access has become an essential component of modern life.

Too many Hoosier families experience and live a digitally connected life only when they are at a coffee shop or at their workplace or at school, coming home to spotty, slow or even disconnected internet. Every aspect of broadband connectivity that many of us take for granted, from the most trivial IMDB query to an important business meeting, is out of reach for many of our neighbors. Those families living on the other side of the “digital divide” face a lack of opportunity, diminished quality of life and even feelings of isolation.

Surf Internet
Representatives from Surf Internet, the city of Valparaiso, Porter County, the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, the Valparaiso Economic Development Corp., as well as the first customer and her daughters pose for a photo at a ribbon cutting Aug. 15 to mark fiber-optic internet services in Valparaiso. (Photo provided by Surf Internet)

The digital divide should not be seen as a mere inconvenience. The digital divide causes real and measurable disparities economically, professionally, educationally and personally. Case in point:

  • A home or property without broadband connectivity available is far less desirable to potential buyers. Many Realtors can attest to the difficulty of trying to attract buyers — especially families with children — to a home that has no access to broadband.
  • Employers expect that workers have an ability to work remotely — even most job interviews are conducted via web conferencing. Lack of broadband at home is akin to not having reliable transportation to get to and from work.
  • With the predominance of cloud-based class content and remote instruction days, students without reliable broadband access can neither access their school work or effectively engage with their teachers and classmates.
  • Those lacking broadband access face limited physical and mental health options, especially in areas with few local providers. Federal health agencies have recognized internet access as a “super determinant” of health.

Investment in digital infrastructure is not just for what we do with the internet now, it’s for what connectivity will mean in the future. Autonomous vehicles, immersive virtual reality, intelligent traffic monitoring, smart home integration, and precision agriculture are just a few of the current and emerging technologies that will require robust connectivity to operate at maximum efficiency. Just as we, as a society, have invested in electricity and roadways to extend commerce and interconnectedness, we must do the same for our digital infrastructure.

So why, with high-speed broadband technology having been available for years, isn’t it already everywhere? The reason for the lack of broadband connectivity in rural areas is simple: economics. Areas with relatively low household density require essentially the same infrastructure investment as more populated communities, but with far fewer customers to pay for the financial outlay.

For example, in a more densely populated area, a provider like Surf Internet may only need $700 to $900 per household to build fiber. In rural areas, that per-household build cost can escalate to $7,000 and even higher. With the average internet subscription rate below $100 per month, no provider is able to make a business case for low density regions.

Recognizing the digital divide and acknowledging the prohibitively high construction costs, the federal government passed bipartisan legislation to fund the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment (BEAD) program, which allocates $42.45 billion in funding to establish broadband to underserved households and businesses. Indiana’s share of the fund is $828 million. BEAD will provide financial support to providers to build broadband to locations that are too costly to build on a private investment basis.

While BEAD represents the largest public capital investment in broadband to date, it is not the only program funding broadband infrastructure development. The state of Indiana, through the office of community and rural affairs, has administered the “Next Level Connections” and “Indiana Connectivity Program’’ grant funds. In numerous instances, local governments have committed economic development dollars as well.

In Northwest Indiana, La Porte, Newton and Starke counties are exemplars of proactive efforts to address the digital divide. These counties have utilized a combination of community outreach, stakeholder engagement, broadband mapping and public-private partnerships to connect the unconnected — doing so, in many cases, road by road and household by household. Their efforts have set the stage for further broadband development via the BEAD program and state programs.

As residents across Indiana continue to struggle with access, there are multiple initiatives underway to address the digital divide. However, the solution requires a variety of tools, and it requires local initiative. I encourage the business and community leaders to actively engage with local providers such as Surf Internet and others to solve the problem collaboratively. The upcoming federal BEAD funding represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to close the digital divide, and partnerships will be crucial for delivering those dollars to local communities.

I’m confident that together we can successfully bridge the digital divide. Now is the time to come together as communities and use the tools we have available to transform our communities and unlock the limitless resources and potential that high-speed internet delivers.

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Steve Carender

    Surf Internet

    Steve Carender is the director of special funding at Surf Internet, a fiber-optic internet company that bridges the digital divide across the Great Lakes Region of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. Steve has been directly involved in internet connectivity initiatives since 1995, when he and other community volunteers brought the first local internet to his hometown of Huntington, Indiana. Now, Steve provides thought leadership and program management for Surf’s ongoing efforts to close the digital divide by leveraging available grant funding. Carender has contributed to Surf’s growth since May of 2002. During his tenure at Surf, Steve has established networks in 36 states and consulted on network projects in Chad, Dubai, Ireland, Bahamas, Afghanistan and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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