Sometimes small communities have the biggest ideas. In LaPorte County, Indiana – in the northwest of the state on the southern shores of Lake Michigan – stakeholders are developing a new model for growth and development where collaboration and innovation is at the fore.
As its French name suggests, LaPorte County is a doorway to opportunity. Stakeholders and leaders in the county have embraced modernization and grasped the need to evolve, so addressing the needs and trends of the global economy, chiefly Manufacturing 4.0.
The executive director of the LaPorte County Office of Economic and Community Development, Anthony P. Rodriguez, explains, “[Manufacturers] in particular are more dependent now than ever before with the deployment of their internet of things and antennas within their building and the tracking of everything within their plant, or utilizing the modern manufacturing methods that exist today.”
He continues, “The sheer speed of change in the manufacturing sector – not just in LaPorte County but globally – and manufacturing 4.0 creates infrastructure challenges in and around the community that we are doing our best to respond to appropriately.”
One such response is to improve rural broadband connectivity. In 2018, nearly 24-million Americans lacked access to adequate broadband speeds, which included rural parts of LaPorte County. Connectivity’s no longer seen as a luxury, but a necessity, and significant efforts are being made to ensure there’s adequate bandwidth to support advancement in LaPorte County.
To address this issue, LaPorte County founded the Rural Broadband Task Force. The collective comprises representatives from the LaPorte County Office of Community and Economic Development, elected leaders from the state, county and local levels, the private sector, health care, education, utility partners, and technology specialists, to facilitate a multifaceted response.
Purdue University is one of the stakeholders that Rodriguez credits with an instrumental role in the advancement of the rural broadband initiative. The institution offers a common rallying point and resources on which the Task Force can draw to move forward with its efforts.
One such resource is Dr. Roberto Gallardo, a rural broadband specialist who has worked with the Task Force to identify and set priorities in improving connectivity to unserved and underserved rural areas. A specialist in the field, his expertise is unmatched and is a true asset for LaPorte County in its efforts to expand broadband connectivity.
Task Force stakeholders are engaging both the public and private sector, as well as working to create a more streamlined investment environment. This is to allow private sector vendors – those who are prepared to deploy resources to improve broadband access to underserved rural areas and promote robust competition – to, as Rodriguez notes, “Make sure we’re promoting and creating the most redundant fiber network.”
Rodriguez discusses an example of how the permitting process has been streamlined: “We know one of the greatest hindrances to companies investing is having a complex or complicated procedure in place. We look at the ductwork, for example, or the sewer system to deploy fiber, to see how we can further simplify deployment of those physical assets.” He adds that the county uses GIS technology in the process.
A major advantage for LaPorte County is its unique geographic location, which positions it at the point where east and west long-haul fiber routes meet, providing an expansive infrastructure. The county has to do little more than ensure the supporting infrastructure is in place.
“As a pinch point, it’s somewhat of a blessing. All of the east-to-west fiber gets pinched right here in Northwest Indiana, and makes available a substantial amount of dark and light fiber as well, through the rail rights of way. Our intention on a daily basis is to fully exploit the benefit of access to that bandwidth and the sheer number of carriers,” Rodriguez says.
In only twelve months the Task Force has already scored a win. With the help of Michigan City-based ACME Communications, the infrastructure is in place to service an additional twenty to thirty households in the county that were previously poorly served.
A new fiber cable was installed along County Road 300 North and has taken connectivity speeds from 256kbps to 100gbps, an impressive improvement. This is just the first of many examples of how broadband will be an economic hindrance no more, and reach its full potential in LaPorte County.
“We are at the point where we have fully identified where the shortcomings are within this large geography of LaPorte County and we are now actively seeking grant funding at the state and federal levels to further the efforts to deploy rural broadband,” says Rodriguez, and, he adds, equip the county with a suitable modernized and digitally-enabled ecosystem to help the economy thrive.
One strategy being employed is Microsoft’s White Spaces, which is a solution to the issue of limited rural connectivity. Microsoft has the lofty goal of bringing broadband to nearly two million additional people in rural communities nationwide by July 4, 2022. Its intention is to accomplish this through investments and partnerships, with an open source approach.
“Microsoft is one of the single most viable solutions for rural broadband accessibility because of its ability to transcend and address the challenges that fixed wireless presents, including weather, terrain, elevation,” Rodriguez explains.
Referring to the abandoned UHF and VHF spectrums that resulted from the switch from analog to digital technology by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Rodriguez says, “Microsoft saw that as an opportunity to design broadband technology that could utilize that abandoned spectrum, the old TV antennas; utilizing White Spaces technology to deploy commercial – but primarily residential – broadband in that spectrum.”
As the White Spaces technology becomes better developed, and greater competition is promoted, the cost of deploying the technology has significantly decreased making it easier for rural residents to take advantage of it. Microsoft has also chosen to promote it as an open-source technology.
Rodriguez notes, “There is recognition of the role that robust telecom and data infrastructure have in the United States, and as such, [Microsoft] will do this in an open forum that is available to all companies in the telecommunications space.”
Smart & sustainable growth
It seems that economic growth has also been a beacon for community development, as LaPorte County works collectively with other public and private stakeholders to improve the quality of life and sense of place for existing and prospective residents and businesses alike.
It’s a very balanced approach to growth and development and one that will serve LaPorte County well for years to come.
Further to internet connectivity, infrastructure gaps are being addressed at local level in LaPorte County to support the modernization efforts taking place. In the northern part of the county, Michigan City has made investments of approximately $550 million between 2017 and 2020, with road, storm and sanitary upgrades included.
Rail has also been a focus, chiefly the interurban electric rail system that connects LaPorte County to the Chicago market. This rail line has made it possible for residents to live lakeside and commute to and from Chicago each day as it takes less than an hour one way, effectively making Michigan City a commuter city.
Acknowledging the value of this asset, which is operated by South Shore and South Bend Railroad, the federal, state and county governments will be investing in double-tracking efforts which will double the impact it can have.
The same commitment to infrastructure investment can be found in the southern part of LaPorte County as well. In the City of LaPorte, between $100 and 120 million is being dedicated to the construction of a corridor connecting north and south. This is currently at the design phase. A major motivation is to eliminate congestion from the city core, which is inundated with truck traffic as a result of the growth in manufacturing.
The modernization plan will relieve congestion and heavy truck traffic from downtown LaPorte while supporting the movement of goods in and out of LaPorte County to the rest of the U.S. market.
Beyond infrastructure, LaPorte County has room to grow, and that room is being used strategically on all fronts. LaPorte County has approached housing methodically, taking stock of strengths and advantages in terms of infrastructure.
Call it home
Both Michigan City and LaPorte Chambers of Commerce are currently engaging a firm to conduct an analysis of available housing stock, and help them better allocate their housing resources, and ensure that what is created is a place that businesses, families and individuals can all call home, and live and grow there.
There is a subdivision under development, and over two-thousand acres of property that has been identified for potential growth. All the while, the county is resolutely respecting the agricultural lands and green spaces that make LaPorte a vibrant rural community with urban pockets of economic growth. LaPorte County wants to ensure that everyone in the county prospers from the economic potential being fulfilled.
From both an economic and community standpoint, LaPorte County continues to identify challenges, but also strengths; strategically and methodically improving all aspects of living and working in LaPorte County through collaboration and innovation.
With impressive buy-in from stakeholders county-wide, LaPorte County is paying homage to its own natural environment and the agricultural foundations of the community, while preparing the way for Manufacturing 4.0 to define the next era of growth and prosperity for all.
In its choices and the way it is modernizing to stay relevant and viable, LaPorte County should serve as a positive example for rural communities nationwide.