Living in a Connected Hometown

Rural Hoosiers say access to broadband is a vital thread to survival and growth

Posted on May 22 2018 in Features, General

Chris Muegge, right, talks about his experiences coming home to work on his family’s rural southeast Hancock County farm while maintaining his consulting job in animal nutrition that has clients as far away at Costa Rica. Sitting with him for the discussion on how fiber optic connectivity has made his dual roles possible are, from left, Brendan Carr, a member of the Federal Communications Commission; Indiana Sen. Todd Young; Michael Burrow, CEO of NineStar Connect, Muegge’s local electric and telecom cooperative that installed the fiber; and his mother, Linda, who also spoke about the benefits high-speed broadband has brought to their farm and to the Hancock County community at large. Photos by Richard G. Biever

When Chris Muegge went off to college in 2007, he thought his days working with his dad on the family farm were done.

Leveraging his education in animal/feedlot nutrition from Oklahoma State University and then Purdue to come back to his parents’ 1,200-acre grain and livestock farm in southeast Hancock County seemed economically improbable. “I still wanted to be able to work on the farm,” he said. “But just like any kids my age coming out of college, it’s really hard to go back to the farm. You’ve got to have another source of income.”

Fortunately, their electric and telecommunications cooperative, NineStar Connect, had run high-speed broadband fiber optic lines into the rural countryside and past their farm a few years earlier. The Greenfield-based cooperative, which was created in 2011 by the unique consolidation of the area’s REMC and telephone co-op, serves their farm and home. 

Today, Chris, who turns 30 this month,  still assists his dad on the farm, while pursuing his own career via high-speed internet as a nutritionist for Great Plains Livestock Consulting, based in tiny Eagle, Nebraska.

High-speed internet allows Chris Muegge to assess cattle during live cattle auctions for clients across the country while working with his dad on the family farm in southern Hancock County. (Screen-captured photo from a NineStar Connect video.)

The speedy broadband is crucial; he connects daily with clients at farms and mills from New Mexico to Minnesota. He even has a client in Costa Rica. He needs to be able to quickly access spreadsheets about herds, weight gain and nutrition and assess videos sent to him digitally.

“We can be out in the shop working on a piece of equipment,” Chris said. “If I get an email from someone that says, ‘Hey, these cattle aren’t performing very well.’ I may say, ‘Send me a picture of them. Send me a video.’

“I can start my computer while I’m changing a tire or swapping out disk blades.”

Chris can diagnose problems or recommend adjustments in the feed to help the client … “and I’m still able to be involved on the farm,” he said. 

“We were just tickled to death out here when NineStar brought broadband fiber optics. It made a difference,” said Linda Muegge, Chris’ mother. “All of our kids have had opportunities to do other things — live out of state and this or that — and they’ve all chosen to be here.”

Sitting across the kitchen table as the Muegges talked about what high-speed fiber has meant to the family and their farm on this particular day in May were Indiana Sen. Todd Young and Brendan Carr, a member of the Federal Communications Commission. Joining them was Michael Burrow, CEO of NineStar Connect.

The Muegge farm was a stop for Young and Carr as they toured Indiana early last month to see firsthand how technology is changing the landscape — and how Washington, D.C., can ensure rural Hoosiers receive a fair share when it comes to the investment in broadband infrastructure and connectivity.

All along the “connectivity tour” that day, the senator and the commissioner were told that the advances in technology in agriculture, medicine and workforce development do no good unless everyday Hoosiers — including rural Hoosiers — are able to access that technology via the internet. The day-long trip also included stops at Ivy Tech in Indianapolis and Purdue University in West Lafayette. 

“There’s a lot of technology out there that we can access,” Chris Muegge told Young and Carr when it comes to improving most any aspect of agriculture and agribusiness. “It’s just having the ability to access it.”

Young and Carr began the day at the Hancock Wellness Center in McCordsville with a demonstration of how high-speed fiber is essential in another field of rural health and wellness. This one had nothing to do with livestock; rather, it has everything to do with the lives of rural residents.

Dr. Michael Fletcher, chief medical officer at Hancock Regional Hospital, demonstrated how he and a neurologist at the Greenfield-based hospital, could link up in real time using GoToMeeting software and the fiber NineStar made available.

In a presentation about how high-speed internet enables real-time medical consultation among physicians and patients across distances at Hancock Wellness Center in McCordsville, Sen. Todd Young, left, asks Dr. Michael Fletcher, right, a question about what needs to be done in Washington, D.C., to make sure high-speed internet is available in rural areas. Sitting beside Young is FCC member Brendan Carr.

From McCordsville, Fletcher was able to discuss CT scan results and treatment options. Though they were less than 20 miles from one another in this case, telemedicine via high-speed internet allows the same virtual face-to-face discussions between a family physician and a medical specialist looking at the same test results at the same time even when they may be hundreds or thousands of miles apart. That’s critical in the medically under-served rural areas that have only become more isolated from quality health care even as their population ages.

Further, Fletcher said the virtual two-way highway allows better communication between him and patients, especially those with transportation or physical mobility challenges. 

“We want to make sure all Hoosiers, all Americans, regardless of their circumstances, including their geographic circumstances, have a fair shot at success,” Young said in opening remarks during the visit.

“Though I am a conservative Republican, I also from time-to-time characterize myself as a Whig,” Young added. “A Whig is that now-defunct party that believed in the American system of internal improvements. And one of the essential roles of our federal government is to bind together different geographies by making critical investments so that our economy can grow and people can thrive.”

George Plisinski, manager of telecom operations at NineStar, right, shows Sen. Todd Young, left, and Brendan Carr, an FCC member, a fiber optic strand. Plisinski demonstrated how the line is spliced together in the back of a van along a highway where crews were installing it underground.

NineStar’s Burrow emphasized that broadband infrastructure investment faces the same hurdles in rural areas that electrification did 80 years ago. “We know that fiber optic connects rural communities and their residents and businesses to the greater world — allowing them to be able to compete and be a part of that larger global community,” he said.

Plisinski, center, stretches a hair-like fiber optic strand for FCC member Carr, left, and Sen. Young before splicing sections together. The photo, looking in a window at the three, also picks up the reflection of where the fiber is being installed underground along a rural stretch of highway in NineStar’s service territory.

With the changing technology on the consumer end of the electric lines, access to high-speed internet will be crucial, too: for smart meters, smart consumer appliances, real-time pricing and other innovations. But rural areas often lack the density — the people — to spread the cost of infrastructure investment around. And areas without these engines and amenities of economic growth, lose even more people. That forces businesses and industry to leave, driving up the costs even more for all the services for those who remain. “At some point, you almost get into a death spiral,” Burrow told Young and Carr.

“If rural co-ops are going to be around and relevant and be able to deliver on their core business, they need to figure out a way to provide these much-needed services in rural areas,” he added.

A recent report by IU’s Kelley School of Business noted that between the aging population and outward migration, 59 of Indiana’s 92 counties are expected to see population losses over the next 35 years. It’s a somber and sobering toll.

NineStar had a head start with broadband, given its unique pedigree as both an electric and telecom co-op. But three other Indiana REMCs — Jackson County, South Central Indiana, and Tipmont — have started or announced projects to bring high-speed internet to their consumers. A fourth is to announce its broadband plan early this month.

As Young and Carr’s visit began wrapping up, Linda Muegge, speaking for all rural communities, left the two with a plea for high-speed access to take back to Washington. “You need to say, ‘they need it,’” she told them. “There are so many things it touches that it’s really important. There are so many good things that it brings.”

RICHARD G. BIEVER is senior editor of Electric Consumer.

To learn more about the Muegge’s and NineStar Connect’s high-speed internet, check out this video.