Benzie County Looks To Expand Broadband Access

Virtual learning and working has become normal for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This new normal has drawn attention to the need for internet access in places like Benzie County. Benzonia Public Library Director Amanda McLaren says several people will come to the library daily to use the computer or the internet. People will park in the parking lot, even at night, to get work done or check emails.

“Sometimes you’ll see students out there when they’re doing virtual classes,” says McLaren. “When they have to quarantine of course they can’t go into a public place. How are they going to get their work done? So sometimes they’re in the parking lot working.”

Eric Frederick is the Executive Director of Connected Nation Michigan which is pushing to expand broadband access across the state. Frederick says accessibility to internet can be an issue for several reasons. Those reasons can be affordability, infrastructure, and digital literacy. These can be both urban and rural challenges.

“We do typically find service availability gaps in our more rural communities,” says Frederick. “Traditionally broadband is delivered by private sector internet service providers so although we do have some public internet service providers in Michigan when a rural population starts to get less dense the further you move from a small town or a city or suburb the more costly it is to provide the Internet service, so that’s why we find those holes in rural areas.”

Internet is a vital tool in today’s world. Meanwhile, over 1 million Michiganders struggle to connect. Fourteen percent of Michigan households do not have an internet subscription, and 4% of Michiganders live in areas where, under the Federal Communications Commission’s benchmark, there is no broadband infrastructure.

“It all comes back to equity and making sure that we all have equal access to technology,” says Frederick. “We can all move forward as a state with the economic opportunities healthcare and access to services in educational services as well.”

Benzie is working to fix this problem in their county. They are surveying county residents to understand where the need is.

“The federal government has put out information that shows that almost our entire county has internet service,” says Katelyn Zeits, Benzie County Administrator.  “We do know that’s not true given the folks in our groups we know that don’t even have Internet at their home.”

Surveys will be used to create maps. These coverage maps can later be used when prioritizing communities in Michigan that need broadband services.

“It’s absolutely critical to understanding where those gaps are, what those gaps look like, what it would cost to serve those areas, and then trying to find solutions to fill in those gaps,” says Frederick.

Michigan is anticipating $100 million to expand broadband access from the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill or Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs
Act, Michigan will receive a minimum allocation of $100 million to help provide broadband coverage across the state, including providing access to the at least 398,000 Michiganders who currently lack it. And, under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, 2,482,000 or 25 percent of people in Michigan will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which will help low-income families afford internet access.

Benzie County residents can take the online survey here. It will also be mailed to every resident.