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Published in Economic Development

Efforts underway to improve broadband access in Ottawa, Kent counties

BY Sunday, January 31, 2021 06:14pm

Ottawa County expects to have a better understanding later this year of exactly where gaps exist locally for broadband internet service so it can begin to address the issue.

Once a consultant collects and analyzes data on broadband access and identifies what’s needed and the potential costs, Ottawa County will then look at how best to fill persistent service gaps that have become even more glaring during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work begins with correcting what Paul Sachs, director of Ottawa County’s Planning and Performance Improvement Department, considers “woefully inaccurate” maps from state and federal agencies on broadband access.

Ottawa County can then use the consultant’s data and updated, accurate maps to encourage service providers to expand broadband, or perhaps to form public-private partnerships to extend service.

“The intent is to give us a thorough understanding of where our gaps are,” said Sachs, noting that low population density in rural stretches of the county and high costs are the main barriers to further broadband extension.

“It’s challenging to talk to providers about going to an area when it comes down to the business model and costs that are exorbitant if we’re not able to get the right data,” he said. “The major carriers are not willing to expand their service to a road with 50 homes on it in one of our rural townships because it may cost a quarter million dollars to do it, and they don’t see their return.”

Filling service gaps

A 2018 broadband map estimated that 22 percent, or 28,000 households, in Ottawa County lack reliable high-speed internet service through a fixed source such as a fiber optic network. Sachs believes the 2018 map was inadequate and that the access gap is as high as 35 percent of Ottawa County’s 105,000 households.

Ottawa County — one of Michigan’s fastest-growing counties with a population nearing 300,000 — is working on the project with a group of public and private sector representatives. The county expects to award a contract to a consultant by March 1 and have the data collection and analysis done by the end of 2021, Sachs said.

Working with additional consultants, the Ottawa County group could craft a plan by the first half of 2022 on how to extend broadband access and fill existing service gaps, he said.

“We are looking at permanent solutions. School districts in the county have hotspots, we received a grant for all 10 of our libraries so they could have hotspot devices for patrons to check out, but those are stopgaps. That doesn’t address the future of how we need to operate in this area and we need to really address fixed broadband to every business and resident,” Sachs said. “This is definitely about addressing how we continue to grow as a region with the right connectivity and quality of life and economy, and broadband is a major factor.”

Pandemic exacerbating problem

The effort in Ottawa County typifies the situation facing many communities in Michigan and around the nation, especially in rural communities where reliable, affordable broadband internet access remains a problem.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and heightened the need for greater deployment of reliable broadband service, with so many people working at home and their children learning remotely, or now accessing health care through telemedicine.

“It’s always been a challenge. I think never before have we needed access so much at the residential level as we do now as people try to work, educate and get health care from home. The pandemic really brought to life what a challenge it is and what a barrier it is,” said Jennifer Owens, president of the economic development organization Lakeshore Advantage in Zeeland. “Hopefully, when we get back to normal that sense of urgency of getting it in place won’t subside.”

In some instances, the issue is not access to service but the download and upload speeds available, as well as capacity.

Owens describes her own family’s experience during the pandemic. The family had five people working or learning remotely from home, attending Zoom meetings or downloading school work.

“The amount of buffering we saw, the challenges we faced as a family all trying to learn and work remotely in an area that is even considered ‘high-speed,’ was pretty startling,” Owens said. “Even if you think, ‘Yeah, we have it,’ depending on how many people are on that system, you really don’t.”

Across Ottawa County, “there are a lot of dead spots where there is just nothing offered,” according to existing broadband maps, Owens said. She also questions the accuracy of those maps.

“The maps look OK, but the level of speed that’s considered OK is not sufficient for a family of five who are all streaming, Zooming and doing all of the things that we have to do now to continue to work and learn,” she said.

Broadband ‘essential’

A 2020 analysis by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo on economic development barriers within Lakeshore Advantage’s service area in Ottawa and Allegan counties concludes that many people now “view access to broadband as essential to business.” The Upjohn Institute cited a project it did in Bedford County, Pa., that “also indicates that it is essential to attracting and retaining workers and their families.”

The Upjohn Institute analysis showed that “access to high-speed broadband was not sufficient and could be a significant barrier to growth,” Owens said.

Owens and others view reliable, high-speed internet service as a vital public infrastructure that in today’s era rates just as important as water and sewer systems and public roads that were developed generations ago. Deploying broadband further “has to be viewed as a necessary utility, not an amenity,” Owens said.

“I see it very much like the next industrial revolution where roadways were aggressively put in place to assure travel. Access to high-speed broadband is the roadway to our future,” said Owens, who views high-speed access as a “very complex” issue that requires public and private sector collaboration.

“Now, with so many people going remote and the workforce really having a choice, maybe some (people) working from home long term, it’s even more of a priority for us to ensure our residents have access to high-speed, quality broadband,” Owens said. “As more and more employers are encouraging people to work from home, and may long term say it’s OK to work from home, that could be a significant barrier for them.”

Should the shift to remote work become permanent for many people, access to high-speed internet service becomes increasingly important in competing for talent, Owens said. Many workers today can live anywhere and work remotely in their chosen profession, and “we can’t compete for that kind of talent if we don’t have access everywhere,” she said.

In today’s digital economy, communities that lack affordable, reliable high-speed internet access and their residents are at a disadvantage economically, said Tim Mroz, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids.

Broadband internet in the digital economy has evolved into an essential service, Mroz said.

“From a business perspective, you can’t expect a community to be competitive if they cannot offer broadband to a business locating in that community. It is impossible for a business today to operate in a community that does not offer them adequate broadband,” Mroz said. “Whether you are a manufacturer or a retailer, you have to have broadband.”

The same goes for developing talent. Students growing up in a rural community that has limited connectivity or lacks broadband service will have a hard time as they move into their high school and college years, Mroz said.

“If you’re a kid growing up right now in a rural community in West Michigan and you don’t have access to broadband, how much harder is it going to be as a high schooler, a high school graduate and potentially as a college graduate, if you never had access to the internet to begin with when you’re competing against people that have had access since they were 2? It’s not even a fair game anymore,” he said.

Kent County efforts

To begin addressing the issue, Kent County hired The Right Place last fall to install 78 internet access points across the area. Installation of the access points, completed at the end of December, offer free Wi-Fi for anyone within a 900-foot radius and at least enable someone who lacks service to gain access.

While the new access points that include 19 county parks are far from optimal and require somebody to get within range, they do offer a quick stopgap measure that provides high-speed connectivity to people who need it during the pandemic, said Kent County Administrator Wayman Britt.

The emergency Wi-Fi project, funded with $400,000 in CARES Act money, will lead to a broader initiative to permanently extend broadband access in Kent County, Britt said. The county has heard repeatedly during the pandemic from schools and local chambers of commerce about the need for greater broadband access, he said.

“Everybody’s doing things virtually right now. We needed to find a solution that allows people to participate in the things they would normally do when we weren’t affected by COVID,” Britt said. “It’s a short-term fix, but eventually it can pave the way for a long-term fix as we learn about this and the benefit of this and think it’s going, hopefully, to hurry up and cause the community to realize we’re in a new era.”

Kent County commissioners are now forming a subcommittee and building a public-private coalition to “take a more in-depth look at this and what this means for the future of the community,” and to pursue long-term fixes, Britt said. In describing an upcoming process that neighboring Ottawa County is going through now, he expects recommendations from the group by the end of 2021.

Back in December, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. announced that the state will receive $362.9 million in federal grant funding over the next decade for service providers to expand broadband access to nearly 250,000 sites statewide.

The MEDC estimates that 1.2 million Michigan households lack a permanent fixed broadband connection at home, resulting in $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion in unrealized potential economic benefit.

The state in October awarded $12.7 million in grants for projects to improve rural broadband internet access.

In West Michigan, an initiative in Barry County was awarded $1.1 million through the Connecting Michigan Communities program to expand broadband access. A project in Berrien and Cass counties received $410,422, while a Calhoun County project received $276,000.

A four-county project in Calhoun, Eaton, Ingham and Jackson counties was awarded $782,699.

The state budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year included $14.3 million for broadband projects.

Despite the federal funding, Sachs points out that taking 10 years to get extended broadband deployed under the federal support is far too long. The $842,260 awarded to three firms to extend service to a combined 1,903 locations in Ottawa County also would only add connectivity to another 8 percent of households over a decade, he said: “We know we need to take action now.”

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