Ottawa County’s digital inclusion strategy begins with survey to understand digital divide

More than 10% of Ottawa county residents don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to the results of Ottawa County's comprehensive broadband data collection survey.

The study also found that 26% of those with fixed broadband have access at speeds slower than the Federal Communications Commission's minimum broadband threshold, a standard widely considered insufficient.

The main objective of the survey, part of Phase I of the county's four-part Digital Inclusion Strategy, is to refine broadband availability maps and capture a more accurate picture of current internet accessibility and future needs. This data collection effort was important because existing broadband coverage maps published by the FCC are widely recognized as flawed. 

Funded by the county and its strategic partners, the survey was launched last summer by Ann Arbor-based internet research and educational organization Merit Network Inc.

Merit received 3,940 responses. Based on the success of the effort, which resulted in statistically reliable data, Merit was able to provide a much clearer picture of household broadband needs countywide.

To capture as much data as possible, Merit and its partners cast a wide net. This included postcards, direct mail, newspaper ads, fliers, social media, email, and word-of-mouth.

Broadband deficiencies revealed

Besides revealing significant gaps in broadband access, the survey's data clearly shows service is insufficient and that there is significant demand throughout Ottawa County.



A key goal of the survey was to create detailed maps to compare with FCC and other broadband data sets.

"It was critical for us to commence with our own statistically validated study of broadband access needs because we do not have time to wait for the FCC or state to correct their data sets," says Paul Sachs, director of Ottawa County’s Department of Strategic Impact. "To address our county's broadband access inequities now, we needed better maps."

Positioning for state grants

Ottawa County's data collection efforts are all the more important considering Michigan recently announced a new statewide high-speed internet assessment. To accomplish this, Lansing will rely on data from ConnectMI's most recent study, performed in 2018. Once completed, new state-level broadband grant programs will be created. Eligibility for these grants will likely be tied to ConnectMI coverage maps – maps that, according to Sachs, are inadequate.

"Like the FCC maps, ConnectMI's maps did not provide the level of fine detail needed to capture an accurate picture of service needs," says Sachs. "If the state chooses to embrace our more granular data from the survey, it could put us in a better position to compete for these new state programs."

The survey results were presented on April 21 to a group representing local municipalities and nonprofits. 

Next step: infrastructure planning

Ottawa County now is turning its attention to Phase II of the Digital Inclusion Strategy: developing infrastructure plans, feasibility analyses of these plans, preliminary engineering designs, and a cost model. Key areas include addressing physical access issues (such as cost and equipment problems), and overcoming regulatory hurdles.

Although it is early in the process, a likely solution may be to develop a hybrid system that uses both fiber and wireless technology. 

Pete Hoffswell, Broadband Services Superintendent for Holland Board of Public Works, asks a question during the "Ottawa Online" forum on Thursday, April 21, 2022, at the Ottawa County Administration Building in West Olive. (Rich C. Lakeberg/Ottawa Co

"We know it’s not economically feasible to lay fiber to every home and business across the county," says Douglas Weber, president of Urban Wireless Solutions, a partner working with the county on the Digital Inclusion Strategy project.  "With wireless in some instances delivering speeds comparable to fiber, it may be more cost-effective."

Ottawa County will release updates periodically as potential broadband infrastructure plans are developed and vetted over the next few months. Eventually, internet service, fiber, and equipment providers, among others, will be brought in to help plan and build the infrastructure.

Like many transformative projects, the Digital Inclusion Strategy depends on active participation from the private and nonprofit sectors.

"Funding is becoming available for broadband expansion, and internet service providers are working to expand their networks," Sachs says. "But because Ottawa County is committed to ensuring all residents have affordable and reliable access to broadband, we needed the data to make certain all efforts are directed to the right areas. Our Phase I funding partners made this data collection effort possible."

As Phase II plans progress, Sach says Ottawa County will provide updates at MiOttawa.org/Broadband. To get a closer look at survey data, check out the Executive Findings Report. For more information on the Digital Inclusion Strategy and how to participate, check the Ottawa County website or contact the Ottawa County Department of Strategic Impact at plan@miottawa.org.

Related:

Lakeshore municipalities planning ways to make broadband accessible, affordable to all
 

 

Read more articles by Shandra Martinez.