Improving internet access and digital literacy in rural communities is no small task. Multiple hurdles exist, not the least of which is a lack of infrastructure, as well as a lack of familiarity with the technology.
These are challenges that Carole Yeend, co-chair of the Rush County Broadband Task Force, is facing head on. “When you look at how we as a society interact with one another, everything — business, education, healthcare, economic development — is, or soon will be, digital.”
According to Yeend, “Access to a reliable digital infrastructure is important to everybody.” As the task force has discovered, “any community that finds itself on the wrong side of the digital divide is risking being left behind and facing a deteriorating quality of life.”
The recent pandemic highlighted this fact. With more people working from home, the need for fast, reliable internet connection was readily apparent. Those without this access were quickly marginalized.
Of course, Yeend admits that delivering this kind of infrastructure comes at a cost to providers. And yet, the infrastructure is just one piece of the puzzle. “You can build towers and install fiber,” said Yeend, “but if people aren’t comfortable with using the service, the payback for providers just isn’t there.”
That’s why she, in partnership with co-chair Mark McCorkle, got busy building community partnerships and developing a five-year digital inclusion plan. The Rush County Broadband Task Force is the first group in the state of Indiana to do so.
“We know that federal funding might be on the horizon to help bridge the digital access divide,” said Yeend, “and we are positioning Rush County to be prepared.”
Part of that preparation involved partnering with Geo Partners, LLC, in Minnesota. “They’re a crowd-sourcing, data speed mapping service,” said Yeend. “They heard about our project and reached out to help.”
“Our goal with Geo Partners was to create a map with dots identifying the real-time level of service. Red dots indicted a speed of 10 mbps down/1 mbps up or less. Rush County’s map looked like a measles outbreak showing how poor our service is. We were able to track internet speeds and coverage throughout the county,” said Yeend.
The project caught the attention of Indiana Farm Bureau, which formed the Indiana Broadband Strategic Partnership. It has come together to fund a similar mapping project throughout the state. IBSP wants to help bring reliable broadband to the most unserved and underserved communities across the state. IBSP also includes Cook Medical Group, Duke Energy Foundation, Indiana Association of Realtors, Radius Indiana and the Regional Opportunity Initiative.
The Rush County Broadband Task Force is also working to address the second component of digital inclusion. “Look up the definition of ‘digital inclusion,’” said Yeend, “and you’ll see that it covers not just having affordable access to the internet but also having a device and knowing how to use it. Many people think of this issue as a social justice issue, but at its heart, it’s really an economic issue.”
That’s where a connection with Dr. Roberto Gallardo PhD of the Purdue Center for Regional Development came into play. With his guidance, the task force has identified a vision, mission and goals, including improving the quality and ownership of computing devices, with training if necessary, throughout the county.
To accomplish this objective, the Rush County Broadband Task Force is working with a local literacy organization, The Open Resource. Its vice president, Ron Shields, has begun gathering used devices and bringing them up to speed, then offering them to community members for free. Shields has also applied to the Rush County Community Foundation for a grant to fund a Digital Navigator Program, where he buys refurbished Chromebooks and invites members of the community to come and learn how to use them. At the end of the training session, attendees get to keep the device.
“Ron also trains in other software programs and assists people who are having difficulty with their devices,” said Yeend. “They call him Professor PC.”
In addition, the task force is launching its first-ever “Rush County Tech Fest,” slated for April 30, 2022, at the community Boys and Girls Club. Working in conjunction with multiple community partners, the task force plans to develop fun and creative activities designed to increase the skills and tools required to use current technology.
“Our Boys and Girls Club is already teaching coding to kids and sponsoring teams for robotics competitions,” said Yeend. “We wanted to support them in these efforts and increase digital literacy at the same time.”
In order to host the event, the community recognized that they would have to improve internet access to the club. Community leaders stepped up to the challenge in a big way. NineStar Connect, the major installer of fiber in the area, and Rush Memorial Hospital worked together to bring fiber to the Boys and Girls Club building to support Tech Fest and the club’s STEM activities.
The director of Rushville Public Library, Nicole Kirchoff, is joining efforts to engage the community in the Tech Fest as well, sponsoring a video contest for the best 30-second commercial advertising the event.
“We want to have a drone rodeo,” said Yeend, “and the hospital might demonstrate how to use telemedicine. NineStar might offer a computer security workshop. And we might even get a Maker Space activity with 3D printers.”
While the task force is still building activities for the day’s events, they’re certain the event will draw a crowd. They’ve also gained financial support from a $15,000 grant from Duke Energy Foundation administered through the Purdue Center for Regional Development. The grant was designed to for the development of digital inclusion plans. Because Rush County already had a five-year digital inclusion plan, it was charged to further its development and create more awareness about the digital divide and implement strategies to bridge the gap.
Looking to the future, Yeend envisions tech summer camps for kids and demonstrations on the importance of technology in community. One thing’s certain. If the Rush County Broadband Task Force has anything to say about it, that digital divide in Rush County will be getting smaller every day.