High-speed internet no longer is relegated to streaming on-demand movies and TV shows. Lakeshore municipalities say broadband is crucial to drawing a talented workforce, educating students, and enabling businesses to earn a profit. Furthermore, it is on par with traditional infrastructures such as water, electricity, bridges, and roads.
That’s why some municipalities are in the early stages of figuring out how to make broadband infrastructure affordable to all its residents — a need the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted.
It’s clear there’s work to be done on how to close the digital divide — the gulf between those who have and do not have access to computers and broadband, based on income and education.
To help close the digital fissure, Lakeshore Advantage is offering a free webinar at 3 p.m. on May 27 titled Understanding The Digital Divide. For more information, visit lakeshoreadvantage.com
, then click on the “events” section.
“Essentially this past year with COVID, we thought the majority of people, such as students being remote learners and people working from home. If you didn’t have broadband, you couldn’t work from home, you couldn’t learn from home, you couldn’t see your favorite show on Netflix, you couldn’t see your mom,” says Emily Staley, vice president of marketing and communications for Lakeshore Advantage. “What would your quality of life be without broadband?”
At a severe disadvantage is the answer.
“We’re talking about limitations, especially attracting talent to our region,” says Staley, who defines high-speed internet as 25 megabytes per second of download and three megabytes per second of upload.
“The internet and access to broadband are central to businesses that work in today’s economy,” she says. “Thinking about entrepreneurs, say you want to start a business from home, the first place you might look is the internet, where you might sell your goods. Without broadband, we’re limiting our economic opportunity for citizens and businesses that work here.”
Working with the Kalamazoo-based W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, Lakeshore Advantage launched a 10-year initiative that examines the barriers to technological and economic growth. Ubiquitous access to broadband ranks at the top of the must-haves. High-speed internet service is as vital a public infrastructure as water and sewer systems and public roads.
“People expect high-speed Internet,” says Staley. “It’s not just having broadband available, but making sure it is affordable. COVID has really thrown a light on the issue of access to broadband, particularly with the digital divide.”
Schools can loan students a Chromebook or rent out hot spots or have wifi available in the parking lot. This issue is very complex on multiple levels, Staley said. A recent study through national economic development councils concludes 50% of economic development organizations are actually working on this issue to improve business growth, talent attraction, and business opportunities.
“There are so many stakeholders. We really don’t have an accurate picture overall of what the digital divide even looks like,” Staley says.
Ottawa County, one of Michigan’s fastest-growing counties with a population nearing 300,000, recently received a $50,000 grant from the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation toward its digital inclusion strategy: a four-phase plan to better understand how to implement access to affordable and reliable high-speed internet countywide.
Phase one will collect data on how to make broadband accessible and affordable to households and businesses within the county. Phase two will cull the data from phase one and define the actions necessary to address gaps in access, affordability, and digital literacy.
Phase three includes building a broadband infrastructure through a public-private partnership that would connect areas of Ottawa County that lack reliable and affordable high-speed internet. The final phase would monitor future broadband needs among residents and businesses.
“We’re taking the bull by the horns in Ottawa County and working locally to make it happen,” says Paul Sachs, Ottawa County’s director of Planning and Performance Improvements.
“We think of broadband as a utility. With data collection, we’re hoping to have solutions at the end of this year (2021); deployment by late spring or early summer 2022 that aligns with funding the county expects to receive from the American Rescue Plan (The American Rescue Plan, which was recently signed into law by President (Joe) Biden,” Sachs says. “That contains several provisions designed to assist employers and employees in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Task force and focus groups
Holland Board of Public Works General Manager Dave Koster says the city is in the process of “a significant engagement in our community to understand how they feel about broadband services right now and what kind of limitations we have.”
A city task force and 40 focus groups that included but were not limited to older adults, educators, nonprofits, health care, and businesses sought to gauge how they currently use broadband and how they might use it in the future.
“It didn’t give us a lot of surprises but it certainly strengthened the feeling that this is a priority to the community,” says Koster.
The city’s open-access model would have Holland own the fiber-optic wires and open the marketplace for privately owned internet service providers (ISPs), which would result in more options for residents while significantly lowering internet service costs. Currently, HBPW offers fiber-optic internet service to customers in a select area of downtown Holland.
“With an open-access model, we create the infrastructure just like the community creates the roads, (and) the community does not decide all the carriers that are bringing deliveries across those roads … and then let the private market bring the solutions across that,” says Koster. “So that’s the model we’re sort of pursuing at this point. We’re in the middle of receiving the public sentiment feedback side of things and hoping to gain a lot more information in the next couple of months so the board and city council feel it’s worth it to put the issue before voters for a millage. We’re not at that point yet. We want to make sure the community is solidly behind the direction we take.”
There are precursors to a form of universal broadband. Grand Haven for instance is part of a fiber-optic group network known as FOG-Net, a collaborative data partnership with 19 of Ottawa County’s 24 local units, as well as the Ottawa County Road Commission and Ottawa County Central Dispatch. The high-speed network interconnects governmental agencies, schools, and libraries for the purpose of sharing services, expanding capacities, and gaining efficiencies of operation.
“We don’t charge one another for that space because we’re all public, we’re interconnected on this public fiber-optic loop, accessing services and data and personnel,” says Pat McGinnis, Grand Haven’s city manager. “I think we have fairly good coverage.”