Published in Economic Development
Ottawa County officials are considering the potential of generating revenue from wireless cell towers while also expanding broadband availability. Ottawa County officials are considering the potential of generating revenue from wireless cell towers while also expanding broadband availability. COURTESY PHOTO

Michigan’s fastest-growing county crafting plan to bridge internet ‘digital divide’

BY Sunday, February 27, 2022 06:25pm

Ottawa County officials are making progress on bridging the digital divide and understanding the cost to fill gaps where high-speed internet access is unavailable.

Merit Network Inc., an Ann Arbor-based consultant hired to assist on the county’s broadband initiative, has been analyzing results from an internet access and affordability survey conducted in the latter half of 2021 that drew about 4,000 responses from residents.

The survey results will combine with existing speed-test data on internet access to gain a “solid, verified understanding of broadband access needed across the county,” said Paul Sachs, director of Ottawa County’s Planning and Performance Improvement Department.

That understanding will provide the basis for a plan to fill the gaps across Ottawa County where residents and businesses lack broadband internet service, Sachs said. He expects Merit Network to present a final analysis on survey results next month.

“With that data we can start to paint a picture of what the infrastructure landscape looks like in the county so we can evaluate from a pre-engineering perspective how we can fill in, if you will, the missing gaps and infrastructure expansion to deliver that last-mile broadband service to those that need it,” Sachs said.

Once Merit Network completes the data analysis, Urban Wireless Solutions LLC, a Canton consulting firm that assists communities on broadband projects, will develop a feasibility analysis, preliminary engineering design, and a cost model for improving service and access in Ottawa County, which has a population of nearly 300,000 people and is Michigan’s fastest-growing county.

Rethinking the business model

An area or neighborhood often lacks broadband service because the population density is too low. Internet service providers can’t connect enough new customers to the service to justify the cost of extending infrastructure to a rural area, said Douglas Weber, president of Urban Wireless Solutions.

“It is not economically feasible to lay fiber to every home and business across the county. If it was, you would have seen all of the major ISPs doing so already,” Weber said. “Wireless technology has improved to the point where it is delivering internet speeds comparable to fiber and can be deployed in a more economically prudent manner.”

A solution to gaps in high-speed internet access in Ottawa County will likely involve a hybrid system using fiber optics infrastructure and wireless technology as well as public-private partnerships, Sachs said.

“We need to overcome the historical challenges in terms of the traditional methods of infrastructure expansion across the county,” said Sachs, who sees broadband internet service today as an “essential utility.”

“Everyone needs a reliable, affordable connection. We have to make that happen and it’s going to require some new thinking,” he said. “That translates into the need to reinterpret our thinking on those traditional methods of infrastructure deployment, specific as it relates to broadband. The business model must evolve. Not only the business model, but the technology model.”

Deploying wireless communications towers in Ottawa County is part of ongoing conversations with internet service providers (ISPs). ISPs could then lease capacity on the towers to provide service to households and businesses, generating a revenue stream for the county, Sachs said. The county has already erected towers in rural townships using that model, he added.

Digital divide, new funding

Ottawa County is one of several communities in Michigan — including Kent and Allegan counties — working on initiatives to bridge the so-called digital divide and extend broadband to areas that presently lack service.

Connected Nation Michigan, an organization that advocates for greater broadband access, estimates that 300,000 to 400,000 households across the state lack basic access to high-speed internet service. That figure grows to as high as 1.25 million households once affordability and other issues are considered, such as the ability of households to afford modems, laptop computers and digital devices, Connected Nation Michigan Executive Director Eric Frederick said.

The COVID-19 pandemic — which led to exponential growth in telehealth, remote work, and remote learning — has brought far greater attention to the issue, Frederick said.

“It’s definitely brought it to the forefront,” he said. “COVID really brought it to light that it’s an incredibly critical topic for everyone in every sector.”

The increasing need for broadband access has led to more public funding for broadband infrastructure. States, counties and municipalities can use federal COVID-19 relief funds to address broadband infrastructure, Frederick said.

On top of the pandemic relief money, the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed in November 2021 provides $65 billion for improving internet infrastructure across the country. States will administer and distribute the funding through grants.

Frederick believes the public funding now available can finally close the digital divide “if those dollars are implemented efficiently and smartly.” He describes the present mood to address the issue as “pretty aspirational.”

“With the (federal) infrastructure act, we finally have a chance to make some progress, if not total progress, on some aspects of the digital divide,” he said.

Partnerships between communities and private ISPs are “absolutely key” to making progress, Frederick said. Broadband funding in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act requires 25 percent in local matching funds, he noted.

“Are there ways that communities and ISPs can partner together to make those dollars stretch even further? We think that’s going to be how these funds are implemented smartly to really close the divide and make sure we do have enough resources to finally be able to do that,” Frederick said.

Over the past couple of years, the state awarded $12.7 million in grants to communities to connect more than 12,200 homes and businesses to high-speed internet service.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last June created the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office to coordinate efforts to make high-speed internet service more accessible and affordable in Michigan, although the office has gone unfunded and lacks staff.

A bill under consideration in the state House would create the Office of Broadband and Digital Infrastructure within the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Among the duties for the office is to “facilitate collaboration among public and private entities to encourage partnerships, regional coordination, and streamlined policies to increase modern broadband and digital infrastructure,” according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis of House Bill 5038.

The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity estimates that the office would need $2.5 million to hire staff and operate. The office could use federal funds to cover administrative costs. 

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