Cass County is READI for upcoming broadband expansion

Jan. 30—Cass County is moving forward with its mission to expand broadband access to rural households throughout the county.

The county came one step closer to accomplishing that goal with the North Central Regional Planning Council's announcement of the first round of approved READI projects, which includes $1 million to build onto Cass County's existing fiber ring.

"Our goal is to get internet to as many homes as possible as soon as possible," said Cass County Director of Economic Development Christy Householder. "It takes time and a lot of money."

The Rural Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative is funded by federal American Rescue Plan Act money and distributed to regions in Indiana by the Indiana Economic Development Corp. The state gave out $500 million and estimated that the chosen projects will garner at least $2 billion from match funding. The North Central Regional Planning Council, which includes Cass, Howard, Tipton, Miami, Clinton and Fulton counties, received $30 million from the IEDC.

Cass County has been preparing to receive broadband funding since fall of last year. The county sent out a request for proposals in October and settled on hiring Broadway Broadband to complete the work. The total cost of the project is about $5.2 million, and it will be funded by $1 million of READI funds, $1 million of Cass County's American Rescue Plan funds and a $3,224,940 investment from Broadway Broadband.

Householder said there are several phases to the project and it might be a slow process. All READI projects are required to be completed by Aug. 31, 2026, but Householder does not expect the project to take that long. The broadband project will add 237.5 miles of fiber to the county and boost the county's total miles of fiber to 356.5.

"Unfortunately, it takes time, and then with the supply chain, it's going to take a little (more) time. Patience is important," she said. "By the time we're done, especially with some other programs that are in place, 85 to 90% of Cass County should have access to fiber."

Householder emphasized that programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program, the Indiana Connectivity Program and income-based options through Broadway Broadband can help low-income families pay for internet. She encouraged anyone who might be eligible to look at those options.

The other regional projects announced in the first round of funding include broadband in Howard County, development along the Wabash River in Peru, development of Ivy Tech Kokomo's Industry 4.0 Training Lab and infrastructure work along U.S. 31 and State Road 28 in Tipton County.

There have been changes from the region's original proposal, which asked for $50 million, and some projects like infrastructure at Hoosier Heartland and upgrades to France Park were cut as they were "shovel worthy" but not quite "shovel ready."

The announced projects make up about $9.25 million of the region's $30 million READI award. Additional projects will be completed as the funding becomes available, and North Central Regional Planning Council Executive Director Steven Ray said those projects have already been determined.

"All of the $30 million in READI funds are accounted for and allocated to specific projects," he said. "We anticipate that those projects will be fully approved by this summer."

Ray explained that the READI projects must follow certain federal and state requirements and must be approved before the money is disbursed.

For now, Householder said expanding broadband in Cass County is a good start.

"It will help with learning from home, telehealth visits, working from home, and being able to stream on multiple devices," she said.

Cass County will also receive READI funding for the Urban Park and Lexington Village projects. Ray said it is just a matter of getting the final approval over the next few months.