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Sunday, 19 March 2017 16:11

Broadband access becomes key tool for economic growth

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LAKETOWN CHARTER TOWNSHIP — Just south of Holland, voters last spring narrowly defeated a local plan to bring high-speed broadband internet service to every residential and commercial building in the township. 

While the $8.6 million millage proposal failed by just 110 votes, Laketown Charter Township officials say they’re not giving up on creating a “modern utility” for the township. 

“We’re going to do something,” said township manager Al Meshkin. 

While Meshkin concedes the township has not yet outlined its new plans, he’s adamant that increasing broadband internet connectivity is a must for the largely residential community with significant shoreline frontage along Lake Michigan. 

“Generally, for economic development, it can do amazing things,” he said of broadband connectivity. “As far as I know, there aren’t any fiber-to-the-home townships in the entire state. The concept of everyone having super-high-speed broadband would kind of set us apart. And there’s plenty of studies that show when fiber is running past your door, your property values increase.”

Meshkin says the township is exploring its options as far as how best to roll out high-speed broadband connectivity, adding that it could pursue another millage proposal, a special assessment or engage private internet service providers like Charter Communications

Meshkin told MiBiz that roughy a third of the municipality’s population faces challenges with reliable internet access. 

“Broadband is just a fact of life now,” he said, noting the broadband proposal would have brought myriad benefits to the township residents.

To that end, upstart broadband fiber providers like East Lansing-based Lightspeed Communications LLC say they’re seeing considerable demand for the service. 

The company launched in 2014 and currently operates in East Lansing, downtown Grand Rapids and Detroit, with more expansion on the way, according to founder and CEO Jason Schreiber. 

Lightspeed Communications largely focuses its growth on municipalities that have shown a willingness to invest in enhanced, high-speed technologies, Schreiber said. While that might take a place such as Laketown Township off the company’s list, he noted that there’s no reason more rural areas cannot or should not embrace the technology. 

“The economic challenges in rural areas have to be overcome, and there’s a number of ways that can be done,” Schreiber said. “There are real challenges, but if they’re focused on it and they’ve got the financing in place, there are ways the challenges can be overcome. In urban areas, there’s not much of a barrier from a fiscal perspective (because) entrepreneurs will pursue it. The number one issue is access to existing utility infrastructure.”

LIMITING GROWTH? 

Efforts to roll out enhanced connectivity in municipalities such as Laketown Township come at a time when a variety of economic development leaders and other stakeholders are embracing high-speed access as a key to continued growth. 

Grand Rapids-based economic development agency The Right Place Inc. has focused in recent years on expanding broadband internet access across its 13-county region in West Michigan. The organization included improving regional broadband access as part of its two-year strategic growth plan from 2014 through 2016. 

“There’s not a business in our region that doesn’t rely in some way, shape or form upon the ability to transmit data quickly and efficiently,” said Rick Chapla, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place. “Suppliers don’t transmit forms, invoices (or) orders through a hard-copied, mailed process. They transmit and conduct business in seconds. That’s the efficiency and importance underscored about the quality and quantity of broadband.”

Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications at The Right Place, told MiBiz that two unspecified Ionia County manufacturers recently missed out on new contracts because of slow data speeds in the rural area between Grand Rapids and Lansing. 

“Once you start having massive amounts of data go back and forth up and down the supply chain, you run into issues that require broadband,” Mroz said. “For a lot of rural companies, it limits their growth.”

Organizations like Right Place also have been working with Connect Michigan, a broadband planning group and subsidiary of Connected Nation that’s working with the Michigan Public Service Commission

“Broadband has become so critical for a lot of businesses,” said Dan Manning, community technology adviser with Connect Michigan. “It’s one of the primary factors they really look for now, having that level of connectivity, the cost of getting connected, how well their customer base is connected. It’s right at the top of the list. It’s become much more common, but we’re not all the way.”

LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD

In light of ongoing initiatives around the state, stakeholders like Manning say that West Michigan — in particular Kent County — is doing quite well as far as broadband connectivity. 

A map made by Connect Michigan showing levels of internet connectivity around the state notes that the broader Grand Rapids metropolitan area and lakeshore communities like Holland and Muskegon generally have good access to cable broadband. 

Many industry stakeholders place Kent County in the top 10 — if not the top five — most-connected counties in the state, according to Manning.

Still, The Right Place’s Chapla notes the state and U.S. have a ways to go to compete internationally.

“We’re better than other parts of the country, but we’re deficient in other aspects of broadband capacity with the rest of the world. In other parts of the world, broadband availability is often universal,” Chapla said. “That’s not the case in the U.S., and it’s certainly not the case in Michigan. But this is a longer-term proposition.” 

While economic developers like Chapla might be playing the long game when it comes to expanding high-speed internet options, officials in Laketown Township between Holland and Saugatuck in northern Allegan County see the need as more immediate. 

Asked when the municipality needs to start planning for another broadband initiative, township manager Meshkin quipped, “Last year.” 

Read 2236 times Last modified on Monday, 20 March 2017 11:21

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