Former Commissioner Tom Santelli Provides Insight on Area Connectivity Issues

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December 2022

Zionsville resident Tom Santelli completed his last term as a Boone County Commissioner on December 31, 2022. Although Santelli can be applauded for working on a multitude of projects that benefit the county as a whole, there is one particular area of infrastructure that he championed that now poses the question: Who will pick up the baton and continue the work that Santelli commenced with regards to the county’s broadband and cellular connectivity? Moreover, with a growing population, who will ensure the necessary digital and cellular infrastructure is in place over the course of the next 10+ years?

Boone County Commissioner Jeff Wolfe stated, “Tom [Santelli] was certainly a champion for expanding broadband in our area. He had been dedicated to that and we — the commissioners — have no intentions of letting his efforts go in vain. We intend to continue those efforts.”  

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Understanding the Issues

We would be hard pressed to find someone, particularly with cellular service from Verizon and T-Mobile, who hasn’t been experiencing dropped calls, bad connections and delayed voicemails in certain areas of Zionsville and Whitestown. Additionally, there are still rural areas in need of broadband services, and since 2020, we have seen digital services go from being seen as a “luxury” utility to a necessity like heat and electricity. Case in point: It’s become nearly impossible to apply for a job without internet access.

“There’s a lot of dynamics working here,” Santelli said. “If you think about it, between now and 2025, there will be at least 25 devices vying for time on your broadband connection. Whether it’s your refrigerator, your HVAC controller, your security cameras, media centers, computers and phones … that is all vying for a piece of that one gig[abit] connection.”

When asked whose job it is, whether at the county level or individual municipalities, to ensure that specific infrastructure is keeping up with the demand, Santelli replied, “I don’t have a good answer for you. At the county level, across the rural areas, I really jumped on that. Had I not done that, we would not have received the $2.3 million that came from the state’s Next Level Connections [Grant Program]. Somebody has to take charge of that with some knowledge of what you’re trying to accomplish, where you’re trying to accomplish it and why.”

Santelli also mentioned that it is necessary to coordinate with all 11 of the broadband and cellular service providers in the county, such as AT&T, Spectrum, Verizon, T-Mobile, etc.

“It takes a well-coordinated effort,” Santelli said. “It also takes someone who is willing to work with getting the available grants to get installations [of 5G towers, etc.] and upgrades done. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration — which is part of the United States Department of Commerce — is working to engage a range of efforts to increase broadband internet access because it feels it’s fundamental to economic growth and job creation. It’s also fundamental to education, health care and public safety.”

Broadband and Cellular Solutions for the Immediate Future

During his tenure as one of the county’s three commissioners, Santelli secured grants for broadband upgrades in the county and other areas of focus, benefitting Boone County and beyond.

Former Commissioner Tom Santelli

“President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in 2021,” Santelli stated. “That provided $65 billion to help start to close the digital divide, which is high-speed, affordable broadband and deployment. That involves the FCC, that involves the mobile providers as well as the Charters, Comcasts and all of those folks. And seeing as we are the fastest growing county in the state, as commissioner, I set aside ARPA funds when Charter submitted their request about a year ago. We committed $250,000 of ARPA funding to Charter because they were the only [provider] who jumped on board. We did talk with AT&T and others, but Charter was the only one who engaged.”

According to Santelli, there is an abundance of funding available to individual states and territories that trickles down to individual counties and municipalities. But it takes someone to “champion” the efforts and apply for the funding.

“The Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment [BEAD] Program provides $42.45 billion to expand high-speed internet access in all 50 states and territories,” Santelli reported. “That’s specifically for deployment, mapping and adoption projects. You’ve also got the state’s Digital Equity Planning Grant program that’s $60 million, the state’s Digital Equity Capacity Grant program that’s $1.44 billion, the state’s Digital Equity Competitive Grant program that’s $1.25 billion and the Broadband Infrastructure Program that is another $288 million deployment program. There [are] several [funding] opportunities. I focused on the Next Level Connections programs and stayed engaged to see it through. But if you’re not engaged, you’re not going to get any access to any of those available funds.”

Santelli added, “The municipalities and county need to optimize, leverage and amplify our digital world in Boone County and in Zionsville and Whitestown. We need the advocacy and somebody to champion the coordination between the providers and the state with all of these available dollars. The grants, once received, accelerate the [project] timeline, and there’s a lower cost to the folks that are subscribers to those services. As [Boone County] commissioner, I was the only person doing that. As the county continues to grow exponentially, the investments needed to build upon the whole infrastructure are even more critical to residents, businesses, governments, schools and health care providers. We’ve put in the two-lane roads, now we need to build the superhighways in each community. And we need to be planning for the next 10–15 years-plus.”