Sen. Young visits county to discuss fiber optics

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GREENFIELD — Linda Muegge looked at the company sitting around the table and counted herself lucky.

It’s not every day you get the opportunity to sit at a dining room table with a U.S. Senator and the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, but that’s exactly what happened to Muegge Wednesday morning.

The Muegge family farm was one stop on a tour for Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, and FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. They came to Hancock County to learn more about how broadband connectivity and fiber optics are transforming industries and the lives of everyday residents countywide. Their tour of Hancock County was just part of a day-long trip through Indiana. Young and Carr also made stops in Indianapolis and West Lafayette to hear about additional ways technology is changing life in Indiana.

From health care to agriculture, technology is rapidly evolving many different industries, but advances in technology are useless unless people are able to access that technology via the internet.

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The driving force behind that connectivity is Greenfield-based NineStar Connect, a nonprofit utility that offers internet in addition to several other utilities throughout the county. NineStar has been aggressive in making sure access to the internet is possible though fiber optics.

Young and Carr spent Wednesday morning in Hancock County, starting at Hancock Wellness Center in McCordsville and finishing in the Muegge’s family dining room. The theme of the visit was learning more about how different industries are benefiting from increased access to fiber optics and the internet.

Young has started pushing what he calls the “My fair shot agenda” in Washington, D.C., which he said is a larger strategy geared towards ensuring everyone in Indiana, and the nation, has access to broadband.

“Technology is changing everything,” Young said. “I want to make sure everyone has a chance at success, regardless of where they live.”

For years, people in rural areas have had trouble accessing the internet where they live. Muegge told Young and Carr that 10 years ago, she couldn’t access anything from her home.

“We were tickled to death when NineStar brought fiber optics out here,” she said. “It has definitely helped out with our business as far as connectivity.”

Her son, Chris Muegge, helps out on the family farm in addition to working as a nutritionist for Great Plains Livestock Consulting. Being able to connect with customers from New Mexico to Minnesota is crucial to his job. He said on a daily basis, he accesses data spreadsheets, watches videos of herds and sends emails, all from the farm in rural Indiana.

“Technology has really changed the agriculture industry,” he said. “There’s so much out there that can help farmers if we can access it.”

In McCordsville, Young and Carr got a demonstration showing how technology is allowing health professionals to communicate in new ways. Dr. Mike Fletcher, chief medical officer at Hancock Regional Hospital, demonstrated how leaders use GoToMeeting to hold quick conversations to discuss treatment options. From McCordsville, Fletcher was able to discuss CT scan results with a neurologist in Greenfield in real time.

“In the old days, we’d have to bring scans in and meet in person in a film room,” Fletcher said. “This saves us time, and we can get answers to the patients faster.”

This kind of ability wouldn’t be possible without the broadband available through NineStar, Fletcher said.

Fletcher told the group that more and more, health professionals are using the internet to treat patients instead of relying on face-to-face interactions. He said patients can now send him messages online asking questions, and he can send them treatment suggestions without the patients needing to leave their home. It’s crucial everyone have the ability to access the internet so they can communicate with a doctor, especially if they have mobility challenges, Fletcher said.

Soon, Hancock Health will add the ability to livestream a meeting with a doctor over the internet, making virtual doctor visits a possibility, he said.

The county connectivity tour also took the group to a fiber station on County Road 500 North in the southern part of the county. There, Young and Carr got to try their hands at splicing fiber as part of a NineStar construction project.

Ross Ferson, chief technology officer for NineStar, said these stations give the company the ability to connect to houses if development reaches that area of the county. It helps to be proactive when it comes to having fiber ready for potential users, Ferson said.

Carr said the trip was important for him to learn what can be done at the federal level to help people who live in rural areas have access to broadband. He mentioned the FCC’s universal service fund, a $10 billion program aimed an ensuring everyone in America has access to communications services, including internet. Under Carr’s leadership, the FCC has been working toward directing a good deal of that money to rural communities.

“More and more, broadband is a key component to getting a fair shot in life,” Carr said.