In 2002, the phrase “Can you hear me now?” became part of the American lexicon as one of the major wireless network providers launched a humorous ad campaign featuring a man on his cell phone, constantly asking if the person on the other line could hear him.
The sketches were amusing, but for far too many rural residents, the portrayed struggle is all too real. Lana Wallpe, president of Benton County Farm Bureau, understands quite well.
“We can get cell service in the combine going one way down the field, but then we will lose it coming back the other way,” she said. “You can barely have a conversation sometimes. The words are garbled and both sides end up missing half of what other person is saying.”
Wallpe recalled a time when she ate dinner in Brookston, a small community in neighboring White County. Her phone never buzzed during the meal, but as soon she finished and walked outside, it lit up like the Fourth of July.
“I had so many missed calls and text messages that did not come through while I was eating dinner, all because I had no cell service,” Wallpe said. “The situation is incredibly frustrating. I don’t understand why we have to be left behind.”
Wallpe’s concerns are mostly for her husband and her father-in-law who operate the farm. Fears of what would happen in the event of a medical emergency or other disaster are constant. Without cell service, the first plea for help during a fire might be the sight of billowing smoke, instead of a call to 911. In the case of a medical emergency, there might not be a means of alerting anyone to help.
Lack of service is not only a life and death issue in a physical sense, but also in terms of the vitality of rural communities like Fowler.
“We have horrible internet connection in Fowler,” said Wallpe. “Businesses are packing up and leaving the county seat. Economic development is stifled because companies and institutions of higher education do not want to move to or stay in a place that has no reliable internet. Without those opportunities, our population will never increase.”
Purdue graduate Neil Armstrong could seemingly fly to the moon and back in the amount of time it would take to open an email attachment in Fowler, just 30 minutes from his alma mater.
Even entities interested in expansion to rural areas might have a difficult time finding their way around. “Good luck with GPS,” Wallpe said. “Our country roads disappear off the map, prompting the device to ask the driver to proceed to a designated road.”
Satellite internet is an option, but its expensive cost and restrictive data caps are a deterrent to many people. Wallpe has two separate dishes installed at her home, one for cable and the other for internet. Using a smart TV is out of the question, but her greater issue is the unreliability of receiving commodity updates.
“We need to know when the markets are up and the markets are down,” she said. “Thousands of dollars could hinge on whether our internet is reliable enough to give us the commodity updates we need throughout the day.”
Wallpe’s frustrations are shared all across rural Indiana. During the upcoming legislative session, INFB will be urging state lawmakers to come up with a framework to expand broadband to the last mile.
Members tired of unreliable internet and dropped calls forcing them to ask “Can you hear me now?” can have their voices heard loud and clear when the General Assembly convenes in January.To see the differences in broadband coverage across Indiana, visit www.indianabroadbandmap.com. The map illustrates the disparities in upload and download capacity between rural and non-rural parts of the state.