Calhoun County

Momentum building to address disparities in internet service across Calhoun County

Linda Pell used to have to go to great lengths to get internet access in her home in Convis Township.

“If I got up at 5:30 in the morning it was before everybody else was using the internet, that was my strategy,” says Pell, a retired Kellogg Co. executive. “I would say that I was an early adopter of the internet.”

She started out with dial-up access using AOL (America Online) through the former TDS phone service in Climax.

“I was using the internet from home long before most people had a laptop or desktop at home,” Pell says. “I thought it was super-fast and super-cool and I didn’t have to drive to the library to get online. I used AOL for a long time. Then I got Hughes Net Satellite service and had that for 18 years. It was offering speeds comparable to the ones I had at Kellogg. I was using it for email and accessing websites and my kids played games online.”

In 2016, when she retired, Pell says she started to notice that the majority of people were starting to use cloud computing services to watch Netflix and essentially getting rid of their cable to stream the internet. 

“That’s when I realized I couldn’t do any of those things,” she says. “As the volume of people watching sites like Netflix increased, my satellite service got slower and slower as more people got on it.”

Like many Calhoun County residents—both urban and rural, Pell resorted to making trips to the library when she had to download large amounts of information or software. In addition, she purchased an antenna and started watching network television again. She went to the movies pre-COVID because there were no other viewing options available.

“When the pandemic hit and rural people started working from home, satellite internet was useless,” Pell says. “I’d cut out all of the time, my audio would freeze, and I would jump in my car and go to Pennfield or Bellevue high school and sit in a parking lot for decent cellphone reception. I did that all spring, summer, and fall. When winter came I decided I was not going to sit in a dark parking lot.”

During the time leading up to COVID, she was exploring her options and connected with a Manistique-based service provider that installed a system in December that has enabled her to have reliable and high-speed internet access. She says she paid $2,000 to have it installed and says she is aware that this would be a luxury for most people.

“In a way, it feels a little frivolous that I can afford to do this when people with kids or health issues can’t tap into this,” Pell says.

She is among a growing number of residents and business and community leaders who are encouraged by the availability of federal funds that have been earmarked specifically for improvements to broadband access in municipalities throughout the United States. These funds are part of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act which was signed into law in March. The city of Battle Creek will receive just under $32 million and Calhoun County will receive $26 million.

Calhoun County Administrator Kelli Scott and Battle Creek City Manager Rebecca Fleury say their funding allocations may be used for water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure.

The county already is making improvements to broadband infrastructure a priority and has shown its commitment through the approval, during the May 6 meeting of the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners, of an 11-member Countywide Broadband Task Force to pursue the provision of internet accesses and services to all residents.

“The proposed initial membership of the Task Force was selected based on those organizations agreeing to fund the Merit Network data collection services contract, and those individuals already providing leadership from the grassroots Digital Equity Divide working group in Battle Creek,” says minutes from the May 6 meeting. “It is envisioned that the membership may be expanded and/or subcommittees created to ensure sufficient inclusion from key stakeholders throughout Calhoun County.”

County Administration plans to staff the new Task Force through the leadership of Lucy Blair, Communications Manager, and with support from County IT and Community Development offices.

A deep dive Into the digital divide

Michael “Mac” McCullough, who is chairing the Task Force, raised $40,000 to pay for a study to determine where the gaps in broadband are. He raised the funds even before he was appointed to lead the volunteer task force.

Michael “Mac” McCullough, chair of the Countywide Broadband Task Force.“One of the realizations we had is that we really didn’t know the extent of how many people didn’t have broadband and why,” he says. “The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has maps, but they’re not very accurate because they’re based on Census blocks.”

As a way to explain these inaccuracies, McCullough says that if one household in a Census block has internet access, the FCC considers that entire block covered. This is why the FCC currently shows that about 80 percent of Calhoun County is covered by the internet, data that McCullough says is not correct or accurate.

Blair says the study is critical because the FCC data and national evaluations don’t take a granular look at the county in terms of its current broadband situation

“We can’t have a real assessment of the situation until we gather the data. The first step is data gathering so we know what access here looks like,” she says. “We can guess that we don’t have very good internet for the most part, but we have to get the data before we can do anything.”

McCullough says financial support for the study which will be conducted by Ann Arbor-based Merit Network Inc. came together very quickly with funding coming from organizations including the Battle Creek Community Foundation, the Calhoun Intermediate School District, Calhoun County, and Battle Creek Unlimited, Kellogg Community College, Albion College, CareWell Services, and Willard Library.

“It’s been very clear that everyone recognizes the severity of the digital divide and the importance of closing it,” he says.

The digital divide is the economic, educational, and social inequalities that occur between those who have computers and online access and those who do not.

Blair says it’s interesting to her that there is an acknowledgment and a high degree of buy-in from all different sectors, including industry, hospitals, schools, and the county’s health department.

“The pandemic just really brought it to the forefront because we found that there are people in the county who didn’t have adequate internet access to do things from home,” she says. “We have a lot of different county offices that have a stake in this.”

McCullough, a librarian with Willard Library, says his interest in broadband infrastructure improvements began in the early days of the pandemic when the library had to close and the staff was given the task of figuring out how to continue to work and take advantage of professional development opportunities. He was also thinking about the number of library patrons who rely on the library to access computers and the internet to apply for jobs, file legal documents, and access unemployment benefits, among other things.

He says he began attending weekly calls hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance whose mission is to close the digital gap. This led him to ask if anyone in the county was working on this same issue. He continually heard that “somebody should be.”

He and a group of others who were interested in pursuing the broadband issue formed the Digital Equity Coalition. Some of these participants are now on the Countywide Broadband Task Force.

“We began conversations to create momentum to find solutions to address these issues,” McCullough says.

After the group hosted a video conference in September, they were prepared to create a coalition with an oversight board and workgroups, but then “we were running into the realization that while informal structures we set up served us well to this point, we needed to be a more structured organization with a countywide footprint. 

Calhoun County is one of four counties that are receiving support and assistance from the Southcentral Michigan Planning Council in their efforts to improve broadband infrastructure. The SMPC is a regional planning organization that aims to improve the economic, environmental, and fiscal health of member organizations through transportation, land use and environmental planning, economic development, and efficient local staffing. 

The SMPC is one of 14 State Planning and Development Regions in Michigan. SMPC represents Region 3—Branch, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph Counties.

“We are trying to facilitate the development of broadband access in any way that we can,” says Lee Adams, Director of SMPC Region 3 and Community Development Leader with the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “We are helping local governments navigate the landscape and also providing grant writing help.”

Lee Adams, Director of SMPC Region 3.Adams, who is also a member of Calhoun County’s Broadband Task Force, says SMPC became interested in broadband as a community resource at least one year ago with the recognition that in order for people to fully participate in the workforce, economy, education, and healthcare, they needed internet connection. The inability to provide them with internet service was viewed as a “drag on our economy,” he says.

“We are working with local units of government to access ARPA funding,” Adams says. “It’s a local decision. If this is something they want to pursue we will help them do that. How they decide to spend that money is likely to have long-term impact. The money will not only help municipalities now but over the next decade-plus.”

Calhoun County, he says, is a very large county geographically and is much larger than other counties in Southwest Michigan.

“The approach to improving internet access and affordability is multi-faceted. There are parts of the county that are pretty rural and a fair ways away from communities that have internet access,” Adams says.

Having lived in an area of Barry County that did not have internet access, he says this has been a personal topic of interest for him and has given him a unique insight into how people have been left behind.

Sam Lutring, Assistant Superintendent for Regional Technology and Data Services at the Calhoun Intermediate School District.This included students and teachers in Calhoun County who were faced with a lack of internet access and a comfort level in using the technology when schools pivoted to virtual platforms.

“Calhoun County is a very diverse county. We have urban and very rural and small school districts. Some of the larger urban areas may have many opportunities for broadband, where a lot of smaller school districts may not have that access,” says Sam Lutring, Assistant Superintendent for Regional Technology and Data Services at the Calhoun Intermediate School District and a member of the County’s Broadband Task Force.

He says for the Intermediate School District there were two different angles, the technology side, and the instructional side.

“There’s been a lot of money invested by the state and federal government on this topic. A lot of it was putting devices in for students. But, not every school had a one-to-one ratio of services for kids and that was a large challenge we faced as well,” Lutring says. “Solid connectivity is still a very big challenge when it comes to teaching and instruction. We were trying to figure out how to get kids access to materials that were more interactive and that required larger bandwidth, which was in some cases a burden for families.”

Like Pell and Adams, Lutring has personal experience with internet challenges. He lives in rural Pennfield Township and says he and his wife work from home and have two children who are learning remotely. His family is among those trying to work together and schedule who gets access to the limited bandwidth.

Jerry D. Johnson, Assistant Superintendent, Legislation and Education Policy with the Calhoun Intermediate School District.“One of the interesting phenomena that I didn’t anticipate was teachers who themselves did not have adequate, dependable connectivity in order to do their work and service their students and many of them are parents as well,” says Jerry D. Johnson, Assistant Superintendent, Legislation and Education Policy with the Calhoun Intermediate School District.

No quick fix

McCullough says the goal is to have coverage everywhere within the next three to five years.

“We’re in a moment now where there is money available and a broad recognition of the issue,” he says. “We need to have the mindset that this isn’t a luxury or nice to have. You can’t participate in today’s economy without broadband access.”

Issues with people trying to secure unemployment benefits or accessing telehealth services really pushed the lack of access to the forefront.

“It took the pandemic for people to wake up and realize this. I have a sister who’s a school teacher and I know how much she struggled with classes,” McCullough says. “I work at the Reference Desk at the library and see how people lack the basic knowledge and how to use the internet. It really holds our community back.”

Broadband improvements will be a phased approach with the hardest to reach areas taking longer to connect than those that are closer to existing infrastructure, Adams says.

“That could change because there is a very large interest in broadband and there’s a lot of federal funding,” he says.

“I would argue that broadband is our time's essential piece of infrastructure like electricity was in the 20th Century,” Johnson says. “The way we do what we do depends on this fundamental piece of infrastructure and addressing the gaps and disparities that exist. It’s the infrastructure upon which the next generation is building on just like around electricity. We are trying to prepare and educate students today for jobs and careers that haven’t even been developed yet. We’ve got to use every type of infrastructure to get it done.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.