How this Michigan county maps a plan for better broadband

Leelanau County, Michigan – Over the past couple years, Leelanau County, a small, rural community on the upper west peninsula of Michigan, has been in dire need of better broadband (high-speed internet) access for its residents. Like many other communities across the country, the issue of connection is at the top of its list of needed improvements.  

A recent study by BroadbandNow found that 42 million Americans lack broadband access. And in a study done by the FCC, researchers found that 9.54% of rural residents do not have access to 25/3 broadband service (25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds). 

So, why is this important for those living in Leelanau County? Because many groups in this community are directly impacted by lagging internet connections. The pandemic shined a huge light on the impact poor internet speeds have on those going to school, living in rural areas and on tribal lands, running small businesses and farms, and on senior citizens living in isolation. 

“Today, internet service is no longer a luxury, but a necessity,” said Leelanau County Commissioner and Chairman Ty Wessell. “Without that capability, our schools have difficulty with higher education programs, businesses can no longer stay competitive, and our residents struggle to stay in touch and communicate with their doctors.”

According to the Leelanau Internet Futures Team (LIFT), about 22% of the county is without access to cable or fiber, and residents have little to no access to other high-speed broadband services. 

In order to make a significant change in broadband connection/speeds, the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation (LPEF) created the LIFT committee, which is made up of private and public stakeholders. The committee was tasked with developing an action plan to bring high-speed internet throughout the county. 

Developing a plan to connect

In May 2021, the LIFT committee, the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners (BOC), and nonprofit Connected Nation Michigan (CN Michigan) engaged in a countywide broadband survey, the goal of which was put together a formal action plan to improve broadband access.

Once the surveys were completed and results were presented in September 2021, the LIFT committee put together a team of organizations to carry out this high-level broadband plan. In order to ensure the satisfaction and success of its residents, LIFT collaborated with Point Broadband and Cherryland Electric Cooperatives. 

“This plan demonstrated an outstanding example of a private and public partnership,” said Chair, LPEF Board Member, Patricia Soutas-Little. “This group of organizations came together to help residents benefit from all their different levels of expertise.”

A roadmap to better access

The high-level broadband plan was broken down into a list of goals, which include:
  • To achieve 35 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload rates, bringing 35/5 to all unserved parcels by December 31, 2022.
  • Explore collaboration opportunities with the Grand Traverse Band of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians to utilize their backbone fiber.
  • Explore new tower locations and incentivize existing and new wireless providers to improve internet coverage, while also improving enhanced 911 emergency service coverage. 
  • Provide layered maps online to allow the public to examine unserved areas and overlay existing and new broadband services that are, or will be, available in their area.
  • Acknowledge emerging broadband speed goals (100/100) for future funding to strive to position the county to achieve 100% of those goals by 2026.
The proposed plan represents a total investment of $17.4 million — with Point Broadband providing $12.4 million and $5 million committed by the county, which includes funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). 

With the funds now allocated, Point Broadband, along with assistance from Cherryland Electric Cooperative, can start to deploy fiber throughout the county — including into its most unserved/underserved areas.

As a collaborator on the project, CN Michigan has helped the LIFT committee and its partners to fulfill this plan by facilitating meetings with internet service providers, state and federal agencies, government and elected representatives, along with surveying businesses, fames, residents, educators, health care providers, and other organizations to identify broadband needs. 

The impact of connectivity

With a plan in place, Leelanau County officials are focusing on the long-term benefits to its residents. With better broadband speeds throughout the county, businesses and individuals can not only thrive today, but spur future development. 

“Everything is about connectivity. Without internet access, the world will pass you by and leave you in the dust,” said Cherryland’s Engineering and Operations Manager Frank Siepker. “You need to have connectivity for education, health care, security, remote work, e-commerce, connecting with friends and family, entertainment, fake news of your choice, weather, and anything else that goes on in the world.”

Thanks to better broadband, students will no longer have to do their assignments on school Wi-Fi, businesses can adapt to the newest technologies and grow at a faster rate, emergency services can enhance their 911 functions, and rural residents can communicate with their primary care physicians from the comfort of their own home.
“We started to see growth before the pandemic, but lost a lot once it hit. That simply cannot happen again,” said County Commissioner Wessell. “People wanted to work from home, but it wasn’t a possibility for part-time or full-time residents. This is now one of our top priorities.”

In the end, by putting a plan into action, residents living in this beautiful northern community will finally get the connection they deserve. 

About the Author: Lily McCoy is the Connected Nation Social Media and Communications Specialist. Lily provides support to the Communications Department through social media outreach and writing. She also adds a source of creativity to the team with a background in personal relations and marketing. Lily has a bachelors in corporate and organizational communications from Western Kentucky University. 

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