$30M grant paves way for Allegan County to install high-speed internet service

Southfield-based internet service provider 123Net recently received a $30 million federal grant that will go toward constructing open-access broadband service for underserved and unserved areas of Allegan County.

That equates to installing 1,100 miles of high-capacity fiber that will serve over 10,000 homes across the rural landscape of the county. The multimillion-dollar Realizing Opportunities with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) grant will provide close to 50% of the needed financing. The Allegan County Board of Commissioners and 123NET established a public-private partnership earlier this year and thereby applied for the ROBIN grant together.

The total cost of the project is $65 million. The county has pledged $17.7 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and 123Net matched that with $17.7 million of its own capital funds.

Approval of the ROBIN grant is pending a 45-day comment and challenge period from other internet service providers, which will conclude by mid-August.

“We don’t expect any challenges,” says Jill Dunham, Allegan County’s broadband project manager. “123NET is expected to begin construction in mid-August, and I know in talking to them, the timetable is to have broadband internet service finished between 18 and 24 months (later). There are not many companies currently wanting to serve Allegan County. 123NET is proposing that, if a company wants to use its fiber network to serve customers, they will work with them to come up with an arrangement.”

100 times faster

123NET will provide fiber internet with speeds of up to 10 gigabits (Gb) per second, which is 100 times faster than the county’s original specification. The project will establish Allegan County as the best-connected county in the state and one of the fastest in the nation, the company says. The new network will be open-access and carrier-neutral, enabling other network providers to utilize the fiber infrastructure to offer their services.

The monthly cost for 123Net’s internet service starts at $59, according to Jim Storey, chair of the Allegan County board of commissioners. 123NET’s proposal was selected from 11 submissions in the proposal process.

“123NET was chosen because they do make their infrastructure available to other providers. So, while they’ll be serving residences and businesses directly, they allow other providers to use it, too,” says Robert “Rob Sarro, Allegan County administrator.

Sarro adds he’s confident the $65 million cost to install the fiber cable will get the job done, but said there are other sources of funds the county could seek should an unexpected development require more money.

“At this time, it’s anticipated that the $65 million will be sufficient, and the final award we’re waiting for in August is still from the same (ROBIN) funds. It’s just a confirmation of the $30 million that has tentatively been awarded right now,” says Sarro. “That said, if we find through the project that there are additional addresses that are found or the scope needs to increase, there is another program called BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment), a federal program we can apply for funding from as well.”

A top priority for the county

Even though the county’s rural residents have access to the internet through hot spots, digital service lines, and satellite links, those are not as reliable as fiber internet and do not offer download speeds of over 100mb, excluding people from doing Zoom meetings, making telehealth appointments, and streaming online programs.

After ARPA funds became available, the county sought input from the community, and high-speed internet rose to the top as a concern, and utilizing ARPA funding became a priority addition to Allegan County’s 2021-22 strategic plan.

“We did two surveys over the years before the ARPA funding became a reality, and people identified this (broadband service) as one of the top three needs in the county,” says Storey. “The others were public safety and recreational opportunities.”

That is why broadband will be a welcomed feature to many of Allegan’s rural farmers since agri-business is significant in the area.

“We have one-third of our residences that do not have access or weak access to high-speed internet, and we saw the opportunity with the American Rescue Plan dollars awarded to us as progress to getting everybody connected,” says Storey. “Obviously, in this day and age, when access through the internet is as vital as access to roadways, we’ve found this is the greatest need for individual residents in our county.”
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.