Rural Washtenaw County communities fight to bring broadband internet online

Sharon Township supervisor Peter Psarouthakis can see fiber optic cable running along the road 30 feet from his home, but he can't take advantage of the broadband internet access it provides. That's because Frontier Communications, the company that ran the cable through the township, won't serve small rural communities like Sharon Township.

 

But the township, which lies between Manchester and Grass Lake, isn't alone. Getting broadband service to rural areas of Washtenaw County is a problem that many townships and villages face, and they are implementing a variety of strategies to address the lack of service.

 

They're being helped by a grassroots organization called the Michigan Broadband Cooperative (MBC) that grew out of a discussion between community leaders and former state representative Gretchen Driskell.

 

"The conclusion we came to was that no private entity was going to come and solve the problem for us, and we needed to take matters into own hands," says the cooperative's president, Ben Fineman. "Our organization is a grassroots nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with the mission of building broadband in unserved areas of Washtenaw County and around the state."

 

A nasty surprise

 

"When people walk into a new house, they don't ask, 'Can I flush the toilet and turn on the electricity?'" says Harley Rider, supervisor of Dexter Township. He notes that in this age of technology, broadband internet access is as important a public utility as electricity was during rural electrification programs of the '30s and '40s.

 

The lack of broadband can come as a nasty shock to a new resident.

 

"People moving out of an area with broadband just assume everybody has it," Rider says.

 

One of his township's residents, Nikki Sunstrum, moved to Dexter Township not realizing her house wouldn't be served by broadband. Since her job required her to be able to upload and download large packets of data, she had to rely on expensive and unreliable cellular service for internet access.

 

Parents of school-aged children and public school teachers are often hit hardest by the lack of service. Many schools are incorporating technology and internet-based activities into the curriculum, forcing families without broadband access to spend money to eat out at restaurants with wifi and forcing many teachers to create two lesson plans, one for students with broadband access and another for children without it.

 

"Kids are asked to do their homework on a Chromebook or iPad, and if they have internet service with a data cap, they have to start paying overages in order for their kids to do homework," says Barbara Fuller, a Sharon Township resident and founder of Sharon Broadband Yes, a group that's working to gain support for a proposed technology millage. "To me, that's just dead wrong."

 

Even elected officials are often blindsided by how difficult it can be to get broadband service to their constituents.

 

Psarouthakis says when he was elected to the Sharon Township board, he expected dirt roads to be residents' top complaint, but he found that lack of broadband internet access was becoming issue number one for many.

 

"My first thought was that we needed to talk to providers. Let's call AT&T or Verizon or Comcast and ask how we can get their services out here," Psarouthakis says.

 

The first hurdle is that it's almost impossible to talk to anyone in authority at big national companies like Comcast or AT&T, Psarouthakis says. But when township representatives were able to reach someone at the smaller regional providers, the news wasn't good.

 

"They told us they have no plans to operate in our township because we don't have enough people, and the return on investment isn't going to be there for them," Psarouthakis says.

 

Going the millage route

 

Several rural communities in Washtenaw County are looking into building their own internet infrastructure and funding it with tax dollars.

 

Lyndon Township, just north of Chelsea, recently passed a ballot measure that would allow the township to levy a millage for building broadband infrastructure in the township. The measure succeeded by a two-to-one margin.

 

Township officials sent out surveys to gauge community support, and supervisor Marc Keezer says that while there was a low return rate, most responses were positive, so he wasn't surprised that the measure passed with such a wide margin.

 

He says some residents were against the measure, either because they want to wait for new technologies on the horizon or are just generally against increased taxes. Others don't believe the government should get involved with services that private companies can offer.

 

"The township board did not address any of those issues but listened to the residents' concerns," he says. "We all tried to stay neutral and let the people decide."

 

Lyndon Township has since hired a project consultant and engineering firm and has set an aggressive timeline to have broadband service provided throughout the township by the end of 2018.

 

Sharon Township is going the same route after realizing that the community was showing a great interest in the topic. Township officials started with a feasibility study and then gauged public sentiment with public meetings. The township only has about 1,500 registered voters and more than 200 came out to a public forum on the topic.

 

Residents will vote May 8 on a ballot issue that calls for 3.2583 mills to be levied over 20 years to raise $4.9 million for the project. Fineman, representing MBC, advocated for both Lyndon and Sharon township residents in public meetings, and his organization has consulted in other communities.

 

The city of Manchester and Bridgewater Township have sent out surveys to community members to gauge interest and may go the ballot measure route as well.

 

When millages aren't an option

 

Some rural municipalities in Washtenaw County have a more complicated situation where part of the community is covered by broadband service and part isn't. Dexter Township has broadband coverage for about 70 percent of the township, so levying a new tax on the entire population doesn't make sense.

 

Dexter Township officials would consider carving out a special assessment district, levying new taxes only on the unserved areas, but that isn't currently allowed by state law.

 

State House Bill 4162, which would allow townships to use special assessment districts for internet infrastructure, was introduced in early 2017. But the bill has gone nowhere, and hasn't even received a hearing.

 

In the meantime, Dexter Township has instituted a broadband research committee to look into other options, such as putting pressure on internet providers like Charter Spectrum to expand into unserved areas of the township, lobbying the state legislature, and looking into grants or other funding sources besides property taxes.

 

Movement gains momentum

 

It's unclear how several state and federal developments, including the repeal of net neutrality, will affect rural broadband. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai has argued that the repeal will help rural communities, but hasn't offered many specifics on how. He has proposed an order that would designate $500 million toward closing the broadband gap, but when and how that money will be available isn't clear yet.

 

President Trump recently signed an executive order that would speed up the permit process and make it easier for existing providers to expand their networks, but there's no funding attached to that effort.

 

At the state level, Gov. Rick Snyder has established Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, and that group presented its findings at the end of 2016. In response to those findings, Snyder in early 2018 signed an executive order to form the Michigan Consortium for Advanced Networks, a group that would study the issue of getting broadband into rural areas with the goal of having a roadmap to the future done by August. However, local municipalities aren't holding their breath to see what comes of that.

 

"Forming the Michigan Consortium on Advanced Networks means that Gov. Snyder is working to enact at least some of the recommendations of Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission, which I think is great," says Fineman. However, he notes, the other part of the recommendation was that such a consortium be allocated a $50 million budget.

 

"At this time it appears that Gov. Snyder has asked for a $20 million budget, and it’s not clear whether this will make it through the budgetary process," he says. "My biggest concern is that this activity is yet another planning exercise."

 

Psarouthakis says he and others in his township are not willing to wait to see what comes of these changes.

 

"I'm not opposed to what the governor is doing, but we still need to live our lives here," Psarouthakis says. "Do we sit back while the rest of the world is moving forward? A good-quality internet connection is a necessity in this world for a vast majority of people."

 

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in southeast Michigan. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.


All photos by Doug Coombe.
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