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In an effort to expand internet broadband service into the county, the Vigo County Council is slated to meet in special session in December to consider appropriating $2.84 million from the county's economic development income tax (EDIT) fund.

The funds would expand fiber optics, installed through Terre Haute-based technology firm Joink, into township fire houses, community centers and parks. When those facilities are not open, a WiFi transmitter can provide an umbrella signal into nearby parking lots for 24/7 access.

That would piggyback on efforts started in the Vigo County School Corp. to expand remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This is a massive project. This is an opportunity for us to provide infrastructure to everybody in the county regardless of their ability to pay," said Vigo County Commissioner Brendan Kearns. 

Commissioners are requesting an appropriation from EDIT money from the County Council. The county is projected to have more than $6.12 million in its EDIT fund if the county paid out all remaining appropriations by the end of the year, according to the county auditor's office.

Rural areas, such as Fontanet, do not have reliable internet access, Kearns said.

"When the schools had to lock down," Kearns said, "a lot of those kids who do not have internet access, their education stops."

Under the proposal, Vigo County would appropriate funds to the Vigo County School Corporation, which would take the lead position of paying Joink for the expansion, using county funds, as well as funding from the city of Terre Haute and a state grant.

In August, the school corporation received $1.4 million from the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), established with federal CARES Act dollars. The reimbursable grant calls for hotspots to be placed in locations where 45% of households have an income of less than $30,000 per year or the area has low residential speed capabilities.

"Our supper tables our are now our classrooms," Vigo County Superintendent Rob Haworth told the council. "Our couches are classrooms. School buses are now our classrooms," Haworth said of internet connectivity.

Haworth said the school corporation initially sought $8 million from the state, however, the $1.4 million was one of the largest grants awarded. Discussion then centered on how internet connectivity could be provided "to where it is not a school bus, where you have scheduled a 15-minute pull up and download, and then that [bus] moves," he said.

"This [proposal] can bring broadband to more students and brings classroom teachers to life," where students can interact with teachers, such as on Zoom or other streaming services, compared to a teacher reviewing a downloaded lesson plan, Haworth said.

"I think this is a great project and clearly it is needed," said Councilman Aaron Loudermilk, who sought clarification on costs.

The cost breakdown is $2,844,943 million for the county; $544,000 for the city of Terre Haute; $1.4 million from the school corporation; and $2 million from a state Next Level grant to Joink. That grant was made to service 200 homes across Vigo County, Vermillion and Parke counties, said Josh Zuerner, CEO and President of Joink.

"By winning that grant, it did reduce the amount of construction necessary" to reach access points for the Vigo County School Corporation, Zuerner told the council.

Zuerner said the grant to the Vigo County School Corporation will cover monthly service fees for two years, as well as some equipment on school property. It does not cover construction costs, he said. Councilwoman Lisa Spence-Bunnett questioned who would cover those fees after two years. Zuerner said the company would continue service after the two years, hoping that data from its service could be leveraged for state grants. However, Zuerner said no plan is currently in place for future funding.

Zuerner said the company would connect small to medium sized businesses along routes where the fiber optic cable in installed, with long-range plans of eventually providing additional service to single-family homes in county subdivisions or in apartment complexes.

Joink's goal is to reach 191 community locations in its service area, Zuerner said. There are 90 access points on 30 Vigo County school properties. Another 84 access points would be located in Vigo County, of which about 44 are in the county and 40 locations in the city limits of Terre Haute.

Zuerner said Joink has buried about 400 miles of fiber optic cable for high speed internet access. On average, it costs about $20 a foot to install the lines, but can range as low as $16 per foot or as high as $50 per foot, depending on the site. At that rate, an average mile would cost more than $105,000, which includes design, installation, testing and activation, Zuerner said.

Rachel Leslie, chief executive officer of RJL Solutions, a lobbying and public relations firm, told the council that high speed internet connection is essential for education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Although broadband has been on the minds our local, state and federal leaders for purposes of quality of life, economic development, telehealth and education for some time, I think it's fair to say an exclamation point is now over the word education," Leslie said.

"To our knowledge, there is no other community looking at this type of comprehensive approach in collaboration with their city, county, school corporation, higher education institutions and (provide broadband) provider," Leslie said. "This approach, utilizing local, state and private dollars, would position Vigo County in a unique driver's seat for future broadband grants and overall infrastructure for more and enhanced connectivity."

State Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, told the council that funding to the school corporation was reviewed by the state's "Department of Education and by the governor's office and it was highly regarded. There was really a lot of talk at the state level...the collaboration within our community. I am pretty proud of the effort that everyone put forward from the school corporation, Joink and RJL [Solutions] and the commissioners and hopefully you all will agree to join this group. I think there is nothing more important than getting access to broadband for our children," he said.

"This is the moment," State Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute, told the council. "There is no excuse not to do this. On the state level... it is so important for your community to work together. Come together," to pass the funding, Pfaff said.

Council President Mike Morris assigned the funding request to the council's annual budget committee, which is slated to set a meeting next week. The council would then hear the request in a yet-to-be scheduled meeting in December, likely prior to Dec. 10.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

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