Leelanau County looks to improve internet access

Leelanau County boasts miles of Lake Michigan coastline, rolling hills, vineyards, and apple and cherry orchards.

The mostly rural county, just outside Traverse City, is proud to be the home of one of Michigan’s few national parks – Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – which draws more than a million visitors each year – and tidy towns like Suttons Bay and Glen Arbor.

But one thing Leelanau County can’t brag about is its internet service. It’s been a source of irritation for residents and visitors alike. 

After several years of studying ways to extend high speed internet services to its residents, the county is on the verge of beginning construction on a two-year project that would provide most households access by the end of 2023.

Internet provider Point Broadband’s proposal to expand broadband services in Leelanau County is in the final stages of contract negotiations. A vote on the proposal is expected at a meeting of the county Board of Commissioners on April 19.

If approved, “we hope to have the project completed in 2023,” says Leelanau County Commissioner Ty Wessell. “We also hope that we will be successful in connecting our 5,045 ‘unserved or under-served’ residents to high-speed broadband services.”

Why so long?

It hasn’t been easy bringing internet service to the rural residents of an area with such challenging terrain, Wessell says.

The Leelanau Peninsula, which is encompassed by the county, extends into Lake Michigan in the northwest portion of the Lower Peninsula. The county is surrounded by water on the west, north and east sides, and divided by Lake Leelanau, which runs vertically through the middle of the peninsula.

What has been an ideal landscape for fruit growers and tourists isn’t easy for broadband construction needs. 

Leelanau County's unusual terrain has been an obstacle to broadband development.
“The hilly and forested terrain of Leelanau County is a challenge,” Wessell says, “because it limits the viability of high speed wireless technologies.” 

Although Leelanau is an affluent county, with a median property value in 2019 of $268,400, its internet service has lagged far behind that of urban areas. Currently, about 22 percent of residents do not have access to high-speed internet.

“There are some spots (along M-22) between Leland and Glen Arbor, where there are many dead spots,” says Chet Janik, county administrator. “Those are pretty upscale homes there, but there is just no internet service …  We are fairly well off in terms of tax base, but it’s a complicated problem, and one that individual wealth could not fix."

The problem came to a critical point when the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools and many families didn’t have access to the high speed internet connection needed for Zoom classes or telemedicine visits, Janik says.

Tackling the problem

A county task force has been investigating ways to plug the service gaps since 2016.

Commissioner Wessell says one of the most difficult hurdles was simply getting an accurate read on the problem. That involved collecting the data necessary to determine the extent of need, the number and locations of unserved and under-served residents, and correcting the false data obtained from out-of-date census tract records.

“We hired a consultant who literally drove every road in Leelanau County,” Janik says. 

The consultant came up with a plan and a map that identifies, for every piece of property,  the type of service currently available and at what speed.

“We did that research at our cost,” Janik says. “So if you’re an internet service provider, you don't have to do that research. We can give you a map.”

The project helped identify the needs of residents in each township. Four townships account for 60 percent of the county’s total number of unserved parcels. For example, in Kasson, 65 percent of the township’s parcels are without access to minimum broadband internet service. In Solon, it’s 49 percent. In Leelanau, it is 34 percent and in Empire, home to the national park, it is 33 percent.



In all, the long term goal of the current proposal is to provide fiber optic infrastructure to all homes within Leelanau County.

Armed with a clear picture of the need, the county was able to reach out to numerous ISPs— internet service providers — to try to encourage them to come to Leelanau County, Janik says. In the end, Point Broadband has been the most receptive, agreeing to invest $12 million toward the $17.4 million final cost of expanding coverage.

It’s complicated

Calculating what that work would look like, and its projected cost, was the next hurdle.

Chris Scharrer, founder and chief technology officer of DCS Technology in Chelsea, the company that conducted the Rural Broadband Inventory Survey, says there are no cookie cutter solutions when it comes to bringing technology to rural counties.

“Each county is unique in a lot of ways," Scharrer says. “Different service providers, different types of technologies, different goals for the counties and townships. The biggest challenge in each county is to make sure we understand those differences, and provide what makes the most sense for them.”
 
Leelanau County had a lot of wireless providers and a goal to leverage those existing systems as much as possible, he says. That required more attention to the challenges of wireless to determine what could continue to be of use and/or developed, and which systems were at the end of their usefulness and needed to be replaced with new technologies, most notably, fiber.   

In Leelanau County, wireless played a critical role in achieving short-term goals, Scharrer says, and will also remain a viable service for many residents for years to come. 

Point Broadband will be a key provider to get fiber to all remaining unserved residents in seven of the 11 townships within two years, plus will offer fiber to many residents that currently have cable for high speed broadband.  The remaining four townships will be completed with a likely mix of cable and fiber — details are being worked out now, Scharrer says.  

New construction, and the price tag 

After we had the data, maps and established the agreement with Point Broadband, the next challenge was identifying the necessary funds,” Wessell says. “We have currently committed $3.2 million of our American Relief Plan Act funds and are seeking private, county, state, federal and foundation support for the balance of the project.”

To support the expanded service, two new towers will be erected, one on the county campus between the village of Lake Leelanau and Suttons Bay, and one in Leelanau Township by Northport.

“The towers allowed us to consider new state-of-the-art wireless technology to help with the overall strategic planning and goal setting,” Scharrer says.

Commissioner Wessell says the county-provided telecommunications towers will be an incentive to providers to install equipment to improve cellular service coverage, expand Wi-Fi hotspots, encourage additional deployment of fixed wireless internet services, and improve enhanced 911 service coverage.

In addition, some fiber optic cable will run overhead on utility poles and some will be installed underground.

Tony Anderson, general manager Cherryland Electric Cooperative, which serves the east side of the county, says his utility plans to do whatever it can to help Point Broadband get the job done.

That may mean expediting work orders, or replacing some existing utility poles with taller ones, or trimming some trees— one of the biggest obstacles to the work, he says.

“Trees will be our biggest challenge when they go overhead,” Anderson says. “They always are.”

“When they start construction, we’ll ask ‘how can we help you make it easy?’ Anderson says. “What do we need from us to help make this happen in the most timely manner?”

Anderson says he doesn’t expect the work to result in any disruption of service for Cherryland Customers.

And when it’s completed, “more people will have fiber optic. That’s what it’s all about.”

It's not yet known the mix between underground and aerial lines that will be installed, and the mix between cable and fiber may be close to 50/50 once all townships have been completed, Scharrer says. 

How long will it last?

The cable technology is expected to be viable for another 10 to 20 years though it is expected that the cable providers will, through normal maintenance of their systems, replace everything with fiber within that time.

The fiber infrastructure will have a life expectancy of more than 50 years and has the capacity today to reach data rates 100 times or more than what is currently being offered, Scharrer says. 

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.