Leaders skeptical federal broadband funding will provide real impact

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part two of a three part series looking into the need for broadband access in Manistee and Benzie counties, studying the data and how local providers are expanding. Part two will focus on federal funding and how it could be used.

FRANKFORT — Perhaps nothing has highlighted the need for broadband internet access more than the coronavirus pandemic, but there are many groups working locally and nationally to try to bring rural areas up to speed.

However, finding reliable data on local coverage is difficult.

The broadband subcommittee of the Benzie County Economic Development Corporation has performed a lot of legwork to gather data on existing coverage from the Federal Communications Commission.

“However, people in the know realize the FCC data is notorious for not being very accurate, or granular. It’s not clear on actual coverage, and is too optimistic. It says Benzie has 90% broadband coverage,” said Paula Figura, chair of the subcommittee.

Figura said FCC data comes from what internet providers self-report on coverage and speed, and are allowed to use advertise speeds instead of actual speeds available, as well as broadly estimate how wide their coverage is, using U.S. Census block data.

“If one household in a block has access, the whole block is counted as having access,” she said. “How are we supposed to know what areas are underserved?”

However, there could some help on the horizon.

In December, the FCC announced that FCC Auction funds were being allocated to internet providers in Michigan to expand broadband to Michigan residents living in rural areas.

According to the FCC, the term broadband refers to high-speed internet access that is always on and is faster than dial-up access. Broadband includes several transmission technologies: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), cable modem, fiber, wireless, satellite and broadband over powerlines (BPL).

A news release stated that “an estimated 388,000 rural Americans living and working in Michigan will gain access to high-speed broadband through the Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction.”

The auction allocated nearly $363 millions for almost 250,000 unserved homes and businesses over the next 10 years. It will provide access to broadband with speeds of at least 100/20 Mbps with 80% getting gigabit-speed broadband, according to the news release.

In Benzie County, Charter Communications was awarded $1.198 million, Cherry Capital Connection received $125,678 and Kansas-based Mercury Wireless received $192,173 to expand coverage to a combined total of 2,077 locations.

In Manistee County, Charter Communications was awarded $1.650 million, Cherry Capital Connection was awarded $36,717, Mercury Wireless was awarded $279,196 and Point Broadband Fiber Holding was awarded $172,468 to expand coverage to a combined total of 1,727 locations.

Charter Communications on Feb. 1 announced a “multiyear, multibillion-dollar broadband buildout initiative to deliver gigabit high-speed broadband access to more than 1 million unserved customer locations, as estimated by the Federal Communications Commission and awarded to Charter in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction.”

Charter officials said they expect to invest about $5 billion to support their buildout initiative; this will be offset by $1.2 billion in support from the RDOF auction and “expanding Charter’s network to lower-density, mostly rural communities that do not have access to broadband service of at least 25/3 Mbps.”

Bill Morand, senior director of communications for Michigan, said in an emailed statement that the FCC established a six-year compliance window for all participants beginning Dec. 31.

“Charter is confident in its ability to complete its RDOF-related build by 2027, given the favorable tax environment and light-touch regulatory climate in place, which promote the long-term investments in communications infrastructure that the country needs,” he said. “If however, the necessary state applications aren’t approved until 2022, then Charter would have through Dec. 31, 2028, to complete that particular state’s RDOF-related build.”

However, there is some doubt at the county level that the funding and effort will expand coverage the way it is needed. Rick Coates, executive director of the Benzie County Chamber of Commerce, said big service providers are more likely to spend the money to expand coverage in a way that benefits them the most, not the community as a whole.

“We have to do what’s right by Benzie County and northern Michigan, get a plan and program in place the providers can use, and it will have to be created through the leadership of counties, schools, chambers and collectives. We have to make a map of what it is we want.”

Marc Miller, economic development director for the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees.

“The challenges of providing broadband to rural areas is we need to have government assistance and direction in order to make it a viable business venture,” he said. “We’re looking to engage partners and be a part of the solutions but it is going to take a larger effort to accomplish this across the region.”


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