Washtenaw County plans to fully eliminate digital divide with new funding

The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has unanimously approved up to $15,472,270 to expand broadband infrastructure and address internet affordability, literacy, and access for all county residents. The investment will position Washtenaw County as one of the first counties in Michigan to fully bridge the digital divide.

"This is an enormous step for our county," says Shannon Beeman, District 3 commissioner and a member of the county's Broadband Task Force. "We're thankful for the full support of the Board of Commissioners who were able to understand the depth and breadth of this problem county-wide."

A past survey conducted by the Broadband Task Force revealed that over 22,000 county residents lacked internet connectivity. Thanks to several recent grant programs, including the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, that number has been reduced to roughly 8,600 residents across approximately 3,300 households. 

To close the rest of the county's digital divide, the Board approved using up to $4,890,757 in federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, $1,000,000 from the county's general fund, and $8,781,513 of recovered lost revenues. On top of these funds, the Board has allocated an additional $800,000 to address internet affordability, literacy, and access.

"We want to see every resident not only connect to the internet, but be able to do so reliably and affordably," Beeman says. "And if someone has never had internet before, we want to help them learn what they can do online and how they can make the most of this tool."

Beeman adds that the expanded infrastructure will affect education, telemedicine, job creation, and employment, as well as attracting businesses and growing entrepreneurs. She also underscores that it affects everyone in the county. 

"Unfortunately, some people see this a west versus east side issue, but actually every township in Washtenaw County will be impacted," she says. "Looking at how the dollars are going to be spent, 38% will be on the eastern side of Washtenaw County, 30% on the central area, and 32% on western side, so it really does touch every single township." 

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.