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Lorenzo Biundo and family, Barb Fuller, Ben Fineman

Closing the Broadband Gap

When the pandemic hit, everyone wanted high-speed internet. Thousands are still waiting.

by Trilby MacDonald

From the May, 2021 issue



"Eeeeven the speed test is slo-o-ow!" laughs Barb Fuller, her audio delayed and video momentarily frozen as she tests her internet connection during a Zoom call with a reporter. Fuller lives in rural Sharon Township, north of Manchester. Her test upload clocked in at 7.45 megabytes per second (mbps) and the download at 0.35 mbps--respectively, a third and a tenth of what's called "broadband" internet. "And this is as fast as it gets!" she says.

For many people, high-speed internet was a necessity even before Covid-19 turned millions of bedrooms into offices and kitchen tables into classrooms. Videoconferencing, media streaming, transferring large data files--in short, everything required to work and study at home--is practically impossible without a fast connection.

Fuller is one of those people, so in 2018, she and others got a millage on the Sharon Township ballot to fund a broadband buildout. It was defeated almost two-to-one. "People didn't vote for it because the aging population didn't need internet in school and don't understand why kids today do," she says. "There was a successful effort to defeat the measure by people who are anti-government and anti-tax."

Fuller hasn't given up: she now chairs the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, which is working to bring fast internet to communities like hers. And her co-chair has already found a solution for his own township.

Lyndon Township, north of Chelsea, has just under 1,000 households--too few to attract a commercial provider. It costs approximately $40,000 a mile to dig fiber optic lines, which simply isn't profitable without a critical mass of customers. So resident Ben Fineman founded the Michigan Broadband Cooperative to explore other options, which led to a partnership with Midwest Energy and Community Communications (MECC), an electric cooperative that had expanded into fiber optic internet connections.

Lyndon put a millage on its ballot, and in 2017, became the first in Michigan to tax itself to pay for broadband infrastructure. The twenty-year, 2.9-mil tax allowed the township to

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issue $7 million in bonds. Lyndon used the money to pay MECC to build and deploy broadband infrastructure to all 1,207 homes in the township.

The timing could not have been better. Construction started in February 2020, and 168 homes had been connected by the time the pandemic hit in March. "When everyone is forced to live and work from home, broadband is really critical," Fineman says. To meet the urgent need, "we had to innovate."

MECC devised a self-install kit for customers to use while the installer stood outside the home, and the township started a "Neighbor Broadband Sharing" project, "which allowed connected Lyndon residents to opt-in to sharing their connections wirelessly with neighbors."

MECC completed the buildout in December and so far, 907 households have signed up for its broadband service. "There was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude," Fineman says.

Unfortunately, Fuller's experience in Sharon is more typical. The broadband task force identified 8,479 households in the county that are currently without access to broadband.

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Lorenzo Biundo heads one of these households. He lives in Lima Township and has four children in Dexter Community Schools (DCS.) When the pandemic hit, they were all competing for a poor cellular connection.

"It's always been difficult to get good internet service here," Biundo says. "But things started getting bad when I was working from home because I do a lot of file transfer for work." The family's high-speed data plan is capped at 50 gigabytes a month, then throttles down to dial-up speed. Even before school started last fall, "between myself doing work stuff and my kids' daily usage, I would go through that in a week," says Biundo. He looked into paying to run fiber optic lines to their home, but was told it would cost $220,000.

DCS schools have broadband, and people can access it from school parking lots via Wi-Fi. Out of options, Biundo and his kids bundled up and piled into the minivan to give it a try. But after a couple of days, he says, he realized "that's so unrealistic with me and four kids. If somebody has to go to the bathroom..."

Biundo called the DCS technology director to see if any help was available. "They got me set up with a hotspot that is dedicated to the kids' school laptops on a Verizon school-specific package that is not capped," he says, "so that's working out pretty well." And Biundo's employer gave him a hotspot of his own, so for now, the family is getting by.

More than 40 percent of households in the Chelsea School District lack broadband access. In the Manchester district, it's almost 70 percent--and in both districts, additional households have access but can't afford it.

According to Ashley Kryscynski, communications and public relations specialist for the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, school districts offered a range of solutions, including partnerships with vendors, private grants, and school-provided hotspots. "There was quite a shortage in schools' ability to order hotspots at the beginning of the pandemic," she emails. "However, once schools were able to get them and then get them distributed to families and staff, many of our rural communities found they lacked the cellular infrastructure for hotspots to connect to."

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That is the situation a teacher and parent of two students at the Chelsea Public Schools, found herself in. "Allison"--she asked us not to use her real name--lives in what she calls a cell phone "black hole."

"Last year one of the big words in education was making sure that all the kids have 'equal access,'" she says. "But what if you don't have equal internet access? It doesn't matter if you have a device or not--if you don't have the broadband, you can't use the full capacity of the device."

Early in the school year, she says, "I would go sit in the parking lot at school and design lessons and videos and send them to my fellow teachers who had better internet to upload them." She would also download videos and homework assignments to her children's devices so they could access them at home.

At first she created a separate lesson plan for her students who lacked broadband, but it was too time consuming. "Me and my fellow teachers would sit and cry," she said. Now she and her co-teachers create lessons without much video content so all students can participate.

Alison was delighted when an opportunity to teach virtually from inside her classroom opened up, but had mixed feelings about leaving her kids alone while she was at work. So her family heaved a sigh of relief when Chelsea returned to full-time, in-person instruction at the end of April.

Before the pandemic, Allison says, she was sceptical about the need for broadband. But "a lot of mindsets have changed, mine included," she says. If it were introduced now, she believes "a broadband mileage would pass for sure."

Alison believes that "broadband should be a utility like gas, electricity, and water," where one provider has a monopoly and a public body sets prices. Providers argue that would dampen productivity and innovation, a view that is shared by Michigan's Republican-led legislature. Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-52) tried a different approach with a bill that would allow townships to impose special assessments to repay money borrowed to build and maintain broadband infrastructure, but it was never considered and died at the end of last year.

Ben Fineman has co-founded two organizations to promote broadband among lawmakers: Michigan Broadband Jumpstart helps individuals get networked with statewide broadband advocacy groups to gather data; and Michigan Broadband Alliance lobbies legislators to pass bills that would make access affordable and ensure that no one gets left out. But the lack of legislative action has local governments again considering their own solutions.

Fineman says he has been getting "a lot of interest from other communities interested in replicating our success" in Lyndon Twp. And the county broadband task force has also been busy.

Formed in 2018, the task force found that approximately 21,000 residents in fifteen townships have either no access or only partial access to broadband. At its recommendation, the county paid for Wi-Fi hotspots to be installed in township halls and school parking lots in those townships until a more permanent solution could be found. Though the township halls had to be closed to reduce the potential for viral spread, residents can connect from the parking lots. "Some people sit there all day," says Fuller.

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It's unclear how many townships may be prepared to build their own broadband infrastructure, but the federal government has plans of its own to bridge the digital divide. The FCC has allocated $20.4 billion to the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to construct rural broadband networks, and the latest federal Covid stimulus package, the American Rescue Plan, makes broadband infrastructure eligible for additional funding.

Fuller says the RDOF will bring broadband to parts of rural Washtenaw. Mercury Wireless and Midwest Energy and Communications have already been approved for $3.7 million to cover broadband maintenance and operation for 6,691 county households over ten years. They'd committed to completing the buildout by 2027-2028, at a fee structure similar to Lyndon Township's.

While Fuller is optimistic about the potential for RDOF to bring broadband to many parts of Washtenaw, she worries that the least-populated areas like hers may never get served. "For rural, sparsely populated areas, there isn't much incentive to run lines, even with the grant," she says. "Providers will build out the higher density places first. Some rural areas will eventually get served by the grant but not until years four to six."

It's unclear who will hold providers to account. RDOF requires providers to self-report their progress, "but what we have found in other programs is that someone will claim they have served an area but they will lie," says Fuller.

The county task force looked at the 3,768 households that will not be served by the grant, and estimated that it would cost a bit over $10 million to bring fiber-optic lines to them all. County commissioner Jason Maciejewski believes that delivering broadband to those households would be an excellent use of a portion of the $70 million the county expects to receive from the American Recovery Plan, but notes that the county will have to wait on the results of "a public engagement process to allow the public to comment on what they would like the county to do" with the money.

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Broadband infrastructure is only part of the solution, because not all households who have access to broadband can afford to use the service. Fineman believes it's a problem the government can solve. Short term, he says, low-income residents "will continue to be stuck relying on short term band-aid solutions like the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, the relatively modest Lifeline program, or on voluntary corporate social responsibility." But he hopes Michigan will eventually follow the lead of New York, which recently passed a law requiring all internet service providers there to offer reduced rates to low-income households.

Billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are each proposing satellite networks that they say will provide faster and cheaper internet connections than existing options. But Fuller is skeptical, saying that in her experience, trees, hills, weather--anything between her house and the satellite--interferes with the signal.

Maciejewski emails that the task force "will continue to pursue grant funding opportunities to expand broadband internet service in Washtenaw County. The goal, he says, is to make it "the first county in the state where every resident has access to broadband internet service."     (end of article)

 


 
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