Voters OK broadband tax.
by Julie Halpert
From the October, 2017 issue
Lyndon Township voters passed a millage in August to fund their own fiber-optic network. Because it's not economical for private cable companies to serve sparsely populated areas, 6,000 to 8,000 households in western Washtenaw County have no broadband access, according to Connect Michigan, which helps expand use of broadband.
Though many communities are looking at taxing residents to fund local systems, Lyndon is the first in Michigan to do so through a ballot initiative. "I think this moment is bigger than just Lyndon Township," says Ben Fineman, a Lyndon resident and president of the Michigan Broadband Cooperative. "Lyndon's success has the potential to be a transformative model for other rural townships, not just in Washtenaw County but hopefully around the state."
In a 622-321 vote with 43 percent turnout, voters approved a 2.9-mill tax for twenty years. The township will issue $7 million in bonds to build broadband connections to its 1,136 households; the tax will repay the debt. If a feasibility study is accurate, it could be done by the end of 2018.
The service is planned to provide a minimum speed of 100 megabits per second, far exceeding the FCC's minimum download rate of 25 Mbps for "advanced" usage. The tax will cost the owner of an average parcel roughly $22 per month. Those who sign up for Internet service will pay another $35 to $45 a month with no data caps; a one-gigabit speed is expected to be available for $60 to $70 a month. The Internet service provider has yet to be chosen. Because the system won't include TV, residents will also need to sign up for online video services.
Dan Manning, community technology advisor for Connect Michigan, says the vote margin speaks volumes. "That's a really good sign that many people are stepping up and saying how badly they need it," he says.
At a special meeting on August 21, the township board appointed supervisor Marc Keezer and trustees John Francis and
Robert Mester to choose members of an implementation committee. That committee will recommend a consultant to oversee the project and conduct the bidding.
Township clerk Linda Reilly won't say how she voted, but she doubts that implementation will be easy. She owns a landlocked parcel that's difficult to access and notes that other residents own land that isn't buildable, so they'll be forced to pay taxes on a system they'll never be able to use. "There's lots of rolling hills and wooded areas. It's going to be challenging terrain," she says.
While careful to remain neutral, Keezer says he sees the need for a broadband infrastructure for the average township resident. With a median household income of $82,719 in Lyndon, many residents may be able to absorb a few hundred dollars a year, he says. But he sympathizes with people on fixed incomes who may never use the service.
Keezer says the township is exploring partnering with other local governments. Depending on where the "head end" of the network is located, it may be possible to run connections to residents of neighboring townships if they're willing to pay for the system.
One potential partner is Sharon Township, which had planned to put the broadband initiative to a vote in November but postponed it to May 2018. Sharon supervisor Peter Psarouthakis says there's a plethora of other ballot proposals in November, and he'd prefer to have the broadband vote when residents can focus solely on it. If voters approve, Sharon could benefit from the knowledge gained by Lyndon Township and possibly share resources. "We're looking into every option that would be viable for us to do the most cost-effective and professional job we can for the taxpayers," Psarouthakis says.
Fineman says the "benefit for everybody increases when townships work together." Fineman thinks a nonprofit cooperative controlled by the people it serves is the optimal model, since that gives the township control of how much to charge and what speeds to provide. A nonprofit could also provide service beyond township borders.
Both Sylvan and Manchester townships sent out a broadband survey with their summer tax bills. "Now that we've passed Lyndon Township, we will see even more of that," Fineman predicts.
Private broadband service is unavailable in Lyndon. The situation is trickier in areas like Dexter Township, where some residents already have broadband. Since those residents are unlikely to vote to tax themselves, state rep Donna Lasinski proposed legislation to let residents create special assessment districts for communications infrastructure. The bill is still awaiting a hearing.
In the meantime, Dexter Township supervisor Harley Rider is exploring other options. He's surveying residents to find out who has access, who wants it, and what they're willing to pay for it. If enough people request it, the township might look into bringing in a provider to compete with Charter Communications--though since major cable companies don't like to go head-to-head, he says, the township would need to work with a small start-up.
Webster Township supervisor John Kingsley is awaiting the results of Lasinski's legislation. Some Webster homes have access, but 1,000 homes in low-density areas do not. "If legislation is passed, we would decide whether we could move forward to adopt the special assessment district," he says. If broadband is eventually approved, Kingsley could envision a scenario where fiber would run from Chelsea through Lyndon to Dexter and Webster townships.
Manning is convinced that Lyndon's vote for broadband will bolster the efforts of other communities. "Everybody is waiting for everybody else to go first. No one was ready to take the risk," he says. "A lot of people will look at them to see how it works."
[Originally published in October, 2017.]
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