Allegan County works to extend broadband access to rural residents

Broadband access for around 12,000 rural residents in Allegan County is one step closer to reality, thanks to a public-private partnership.

Even though the county’s rural residents have access to the internet through hot spots, digital service lines, and satellite links, it’s not as reliable as broadband and does not offer download speeds of over 100 megabits per second (Mbps), excluding people from accessing Zoom meetings, telehealth appointments, and streamed programming.

Translation: They’re eager for broadband, but it’s taken a while to get there.

“They’re desperate,” says Jill Dunham, Allegan County’s broadband project manager. “The big problem is density. (If you don’t have a more populated area,) there’s too much money being spent on infrastructure and too little revenue.”
Dan Wedge, executive director of services for Allegan County
“For those who I have talked to, the cost for either satellite or hot spot is one barrier, as is the reliability,” says Dan Wedge, executive director of services for Allegan County. “The satellite services are not as reliable, or the speed factor challenges (with current options).”

County partners with 123Net

That’s where the public-private partnership comes in.

The groundwork for high-speed internet has been laid. Southfield-based internet service provider 123Net has filed an application for a $30 million grant on behalf of the county from the state’s Realizing Opportunities with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN), which will provide a third of the financing needed for high-speed internet infrastructure.

The application has the backing of the county’s six representatives in the state Legislature. State Reps. Matt Hall, Joey Andrews, Nancy DeBoer, Angela Rigas, and Rachelle Smit signed a joint letter announcing their “strong support for the forthcoming grant application of 123Net in partnership with Allegan County.” State Rep. Pauline Wendzel, who also represents a portion of the county, sent a separate communication pledging her support for the 123Net/Allegan County application. 

Among county’s top concerns

Interest in broadband heightened when notice of federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds became available. The county quickly sought input from the community, and high-speed internet rose to the top as a concern. Utilizing ARPA funding then became a priority addition to Allegan County’s 2021–22 strategic plan.

The county then pledged $17.7 million in ARPA funds, and 123Net matched it with $17.7 million of its own funds. The total project cost is expected to reach $70 million, and 123Net will apply for additional grant funds to complete the project. Once funding is received, the project is expected to be completed in approximately 18-24 months.

The ROBIN application is under review by the state’s Michigan High-Speed Internet Office (MIHI), and a preliminary decision is expected in late April. After a 45-day challenge period, MIHI plans to announce final awards in July. If awarded to 123Net, the installation of the fiber-optic cable in Allegan County is expected to start this year.

A team effort has made it possible to develop an agreement that will positively impact many lives and keep Allegan County on the path of progress, according to County Administrator Rob Sarro.

“We are fortunate to have a county team with a variety of talents that can come together to deliver a result and new partners like 123Net wanting to join our team and invest in Allegan County,” says Sarro. “The 123Net proposal, in conjunction with the county’s partnership agreement, embodies the need for rural broadband development and the intent of rural broadband funding. The county and 123Net were prepared for this opportunity and are hopeful maximum ROBIN funding will be awarded to this project.”

A good fit

Dunham adds 123Net is a good fit for the county.

“123Net is a foundational provider of Michigan broadband infrastructure,” says Dunham. “From their reasonable monthly rates to the open-access network proposed, they offer a great solution for Allegan County,” she says.
Jill Dunham, Allegan County’s broadband project manager
One reason broadband will be a welcomed feature to rural Allegan is because of the significant agri-business in the area, says Wedge.

“Allegan County has an agriculture base, from animals to crops to blueberries and corn. A lot of farming goes on,” he says. “I’ve had direct conversations with farmers who say, with technology changing, for them to be successful in the agricultural business, for them to run their businesses, they need high-speed internet access as well. So there are a number of rural businesses that need reliable broadband service.”

‘Open-access cable’

The monthly cost for 123Net’s internet service is expected to be about $60, according to Jim Storey, chair of the Allegan County board of commissioners.
Allegan County Commisison Chairman Jim Storey
“As far as the county is concerned, the goal is to get high-speed access to residents,” says Storey. “That’s the single most important act in my 10 years that we can do to bring valued service to every resident who wants it.”

Storey adds users will not be restricted to using 123Net as an internet service provider.

“Even though they (123Net) will install it and provide internet service, it’s an open-access cable,” says Storey. “So, other companies can use it. They have to pay an access fee like individual residents will have to, but if some people don’t want 123Net, they can go with someone else.”
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.