Lordy, they’re going fast, fast, fast on Grandma Barnes Road. No, not the Dodge Chargers, the Harley Softtail Breakouts or the F-150 Platinums. The breaking news: You can find the fastest internet speeds in America on Grandma Barnes Road deep in the hollers of Brown County.
This was no accident and, in fact, purposely was almost a decade in the making. It is a problem facing many of Indiana’s rural counties. The solutions here happened because of a unique collaboration between activist citizens, locally elected officials, the Brown County School Corporation, the highway department, state legislators, two gubernatorial administrations and a small company that is investing here and in places like Harrison and Washington counties.
Or as Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch told the dozens of people gathered on a rainy Friday afternoon to celebrate the expansion of high speed internet to close to 400 homes, “Government we like to have, but it is always the hard-working men and women who are taking the risks and the sacrifices to move your communities forward and move our state forward.”
Brown County’s Vision 2020 plan of 2009 identified high speed internet needed for education, economic development and public safety. A task force was formed in 2011 to attempt to achieve that goal, with limited success. Two years ago, Nashville Town Manager Scott Rudd tried again, creating the new Brown County Broadband Task Force that includes this writer. Mike Laros, who heads the committee, explained after the 2011 version, “The main thing we learned is it ain’t easy to get broadband in rural America.”
At the Indiana Statehouse, then-Lt. Gov. Sue Ellspermann was also studying the issue, had convened a state task force that included agency heads, elected officials, big companies like AT&T, and defined solutions. One of them was to create criteria for local communities to position themselves for broadband investment, establish time frames and a central clearinghouse to gain permits. State Sen. Erich Koch carried the “Broadband Ready” legislation, which Gov. Mike Pence signed, and so Nashville and Brown County became the first municipality, the first county, and the first county/county seat tandem to receive the designation from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation.
Sen. Koch observed, “Rural broadband is a challenge not just for Indiana, but every state. The solution? There is no silver bullet. The solution is a silver buckshot. It will take many solutions until we’re all the way there.”
With the new designation, Rudd noticed a quick uptick in inquiries. Smithville Fiber crews were laying fiber within the town. Another came from Bryan Gabriel, CEO of Mainstream Fiber Networks which was willing to invest in rural communities.
What was needed was a citizen activist or in Mainstream’s parlance, a “champion,” and one of them was John Tiernan, who moved from downtown Chicago to Grandma Barnes Road four years ago. “Coming from Chicago, we really took the challenges of rural internet for granted,” he said.
Tiernan joined the second broadband task force after approaching bigger companies. Tiernan learned of Mainstream, which installed what became a fiber optic beachhead to Brown County Schools’ campuses near Helmsburg and out toward Story. In Mainstream, Tiernan found a partner: “It was a breath of fresh air. The despair I felt after six figure quotes and then there was hope to bring internet to Grandma Barnes Road.”
Sen. Koch explained of Gabriel and Mainstream, “He’s put technology, he’s put in capital, he’s taken risk and he’s worked closely with local leadership. We’re not done here.”
Mainstream has invested $950,000 in Brown County, bringing service to 400 homes. It found cooperation from the Brown County Highway Department, which helped the company assist with right-of-way issues. “Because of Bryan and Mainstream we now have internet speeds on Grandma Barnes Road that rival the fastest internet in the country. It is five times faster than the internet speeds we left in downtown Chicago,” Tiernan said.
Our beautiful Nashville proclaims itself as a “Pioneer Art Colony.” Gov. Holcomb’s inaugural address celebrated pioneering Hoosiers riding Conestoga wagons to Gemini space capsules.
Lt. Gov. Crouch invoked the most famous Hoosier pioneer. “It is so interesting to me that Abraham Lincoln said the fact that some can achieve great success is proof to all that others can achieve it,” she began, speaking to dozens of locals who showed up at a pavilion where the fireplace was ablaze. “You have taken it upon yourselves and community to come together to collaborate and cooperate to accomplish a goal and provide services to you and your residents. I can’t think of any greater success than that.”
Crouch added, “Gov. Holcomb and I believe that rural Indiana is the next great economic frontier here in Indiana. To realize that economic development, we must have that broadband connectivity and speed in every corner of our state. Health care … education … business … and agriculture depend upon it. Hoosiers across this state know that government alone is not the answer, but rather you all are.”
On this day, what really mattered was that Grandma Barnes Road was expressly connected to the world. John Tiernan could log on to the internet, and watch Gov. Holcomb forge economic relationships in India.
— Brian Howey is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.