Among the candidates we interviewed this spring was Brian Motley, a Manchester University graduate who sought to wrest the Republican nomination for County Council District 2 from Tom Harris. It was the first political race for Motley, who works for Lifeline Youth and Family Services in Fort Wayne. Not unexpectedly, he lost to Harris, the two-term incumbent.
But when Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announced last week that he was planning to dedicate $100 million in new Toll Road revenue to bringing broadband to underserved areas of Indiana, we recalled only Motley, of all the candidates in this spring's primary races, emphasizing that need. In fact, he told us he was running mainly to draw attention to the lack of internet connectivity and other infrastructure deficiencies outside the city.
“I'm very pleased that something's happening with that,” Motley said Tuesday. He said he's looking forward to learning details about how the state grants would be made, but “I would like to see them be focused into specific areas where there are no options, as well as areas where there's a monopoly on service.”
As The Journal Gazette's Ron Shawgo reported Sunday, at least 42 percent of rural Indiana is without high-speed internet service. In several northeast Indiana counties, less than half the population has such broadband coverage; 58 percent of Allen County residents do.
But in the area near Grabill where Motley lives, only satellite internet connections are available.
Motley didn't observe much support for the issue during this spring's campaign; he recalls that Chris Spurr, an unsuccessful candidate for county commissioner, also mentioned it during one town hall. But the importance of broadband may have been more obvious to a 23-year-old rural resident than to most other candidates.
“It's why a lot of younger people move to urban areas, I believe,” Motley said. “It may be something you only notice if you don't have it.”
Indeed, it's difficult for most urban Americans to imagine going a week, or even a day, without fast and reliable internet connections. Work, entertainment, directions, medical needs – try to think of an area where digital access isn't ever more intrinsic.
Unless you don't have it.
“As a software architect, I know the internet has become integrated into the DNA of today's businesses,” Morgan County Councilman Daniel M. Elliott wrote Tuesday in the Indianapolis Star. “Not just tech companies, but logistics, life sciences, teaching, media and even farming. Access to broadband Internet has been much like the railroads and highways of the past. Those communities that have a strong infrastructure in place have seen increasing population growth and more economic opportunities. Those areas with limited access have seen population loss and a decline in business growth. ... Internet access is not optional for families or businesses in the 21st century.”
Co-ops and cable companies may eventually bring high-speed internet to all far-flung rural customers. But it could be a long wait. Broadband needs to be viewed as an essential public need that government has a role in ensuring, much like water, electricity and garbage service.
Some strands of Holcomb's plans for the $1 billion the state will receive from higher rates for trucks using the Toll Road are questionable. But the governor's effort to help bring rural Indiana into the digital century isvisionary.
And kudos to those who, like Brian Motley, have insisted that rural Hoosiers not be left behind.