LINDEN — Tipmont REMC is acquiring Lafayette-based web provider Wintek Corp., allowing the two companies to bring high-speed internet to rural homes stuck in the slow lane of the information superhighway, officials announced Thursday.

The merger will expand fiber internet and other services to 23,000 customers across west central Indiana over the next eight years.

More than half of Tipmont’s customers said they could not access affordable broadband service in 2017, according to results of a member survey. The first customers were hooked up last month as Tipmont builds a fiber-optic network across its eight-county service area.

“In order to that do in a fashion that can expedite the process and remove some of the risk, we were looking for some partners,” Ron Holcomb, Tipmont’s president and CEO, said in a phone interview ahead of the formal announcement.

Wintek currently provides broadband and information technology services for Tipmont’s Linden headquarters.

All of Wintek’s 22 employees will join the Tipmont staff. The company has installed broadband internet in more than 400 homes since 2010.

“We’ve done as much as we can financially afford to do,” said Oliver Beers, Wintek’s co-owner and chief operating officer.

Construction on the fiber-optic network began this summer in the Linden, Romney and New Richmond areas.

“We’re just trying to figure out where we’re going to go next, but certainly we wanted to start here in Montgomery County,” Holcomb said.

Customers will also be offered phone and cable television service through Clinton County-based Mulberry Telecommunications.

The lack of reliable internet service has become a barrier to investment in rural areas, and electric cooperatives are seen as a key player in expanding broadband access. 

Each dollar spent on expanding broadband returns $4 to local economies, according to a Purdue University study co-commissioned by Tipmont.

“Rural broadband is not only a Montgomery or Tippecanoe problem, it is also a statewide problem,” Beers said.

State lawmakers gave cooperatives the power to begin laying fiber lines last year. As of September 2017, more than 80 co-ops nationwide were either hooking up broadband service or planned to, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

Montgomery County’s proposed comprehensive plan calls on stakeholders to begin discussing how to expand access to the vast areas surrounding Crawfordsville with spotty broadband coverage.

The redevelopment commission has surveyed local industries and met with internet providers to determine service capabilities. Members say they will look at possible funding opportunities to expand broadband.

Some of that money could come from the federal government.

The latest farm bill, approved this week, increases the investment in rural broadband to $350 million from $25 million over the next 10 years. The Federal Communications Commission will work with the Department of Agriculture to hook up rural areas.

Schools also face challenges with students who don’t have high-speed internet at home.

When North Montgomery Community School Corp. provided iPads or Chromebooks to each student, administrators hoped to level the playing field on web access. The district wants to eventually hold e-learning days during inclement weather. 

Superintendent Dr. Colleen Moran said the issue creates an equity problem and called on stakeholders to help low-income families afford high-speed internet. 

“It’s become as important as electricity. It really has,” Moran said. 

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