Digital Towns grant delivers WiFi hotspot and classes to connect Owen County community

On a bright summer afternoon, Marce King stands before a crowd gathered on Spencer’s Main Street, positioned behind a green ribbon that spans the entrance to a new fiber internet garden.

This is the official celebration of a unique outdoor space where the community can access free high-speed internet funded by a Regional Opportunity Initiatives Digital Towns grant. 

Owen County was one of four projects selected to receive Digital Towns funding to improve digital equity and inclusion in the Indiana Uplands. Projects in Crawford and Washington counties, along with a regional project by the Ivy Tech Foundation, were also selected.

“I appreciate how ROI is constantly looking for ways to expand Indiana’s rural economy, specifically the Uplands region,” said King, the CEO of Owen County Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development. “Being from a rural community, that is where my heart is, so having organizations like ROI that continue to invest in rural Indiana is so important.” 

ROI opened this competitive opportunity in spring 2023 to advance a more digitally inclusive region and provide communities and organizations with resources to implement projects and programs that help Uplands citizens participate more fully in our digital society.

ROI partnered with the Purdue Center for Regional Development to evaluate the region’s digital infrastructure and worked with teams in each county to develop digital inclusion plans. Each plan provides a roadmap for communities to advance broadband infrastructure, adoption of computing devices, and digital literacy in the Indiana Uplands.

Borrowed from a framework developed in Ireland, “Digital Towns” are defined as geographic and information spaces that adopt and integrate information and communication technologies in all aspects of town life. 

“Launching the Digital Towns grant opportunity was an exciting step forward the development of digital inclusion plans in each of our 11 counties,” said President and CEO Tina Peterson. “Our Digital Towns initiative envisions communities where digital inclusion is seamlessly woven into every aspect of life.  “It’s incredible to see these  WiFi hotspots, fiber gardens, and digital literacy classes as agents for enhanced innovation and connectivity throughout our region.”

Providing internet connectivity within the town of Spencer was an important goal set in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, King said everyone realized the importance of internet connectivity as they worked and attended school from home. Those without internet connections at home had to venture out to find free WiFi hotspots. 

As she stood with the crowd gathered for the fiber garden ribbon cutting, King declared that the goal had been officially met.

“We really made internet the No. 1 priority. It has been the track that has brought all of the economic development down the road for Owen County in the last four years,” King said.

With the help of an Indiana Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program, homes outside of town are now connected to high-speed internet. King said local providers then worked to bring internet across the river to the Chamber’s building and ultimately to Spencer. King also credited IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs Professor Scott Burgins and his students with planning out the fiber garden.

“For the full semester, they researched what it was going to cost to get concrete, find contractors, etc.,” she explained. 

Once the planning work was completed, the Digital Towns grant covered hardware, software, and internet access for the public to use at the site. Digital Towns grant funds were also used by the Chamber to host training programs and events in the Exchange, its coworking space and learning center, to address digital skill gaps, including social media mastery and skills development. Fifty-two people have attended the programs so far, with the next program set for July 18. King added that the plan is to also use the Fiber Garden space for workshops and networking events focused on digital literacy.

Since the Fiber Garden ribbon cutting on June 11, King said it is used daily by locals and students on summer break.

Stay tuned for updates on other Digital Towns grants in the coming weeks. For more information on ROI’s digital inclusion programs, visit