ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County is making slow but steady strides to bring high-speed internet access to everyone in the county who wants it, a technology expert told commissioners Thursday.
“We’ve got a good start, but we have a long way to go,” Chris Scharrer from DCS Technology told the county board.
In his presentation, he said his research involved driving 2,322 miles of road, surveying more than 86,000 properties in 39 municipalities in Berrien County.
Administrator Brian Dissette said the county is expected to receive nearly $30 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding. One of the approved uses for the funds is to invest in rural broadband internet in unserved areas.
The county allocated $6 million to help address the needs, and is allowed to sub-grant some of the money to Berrien municipalities. The county created an application process for municipalities to request a share of the money.
Addressing the need
In 2021, the results of a survey commissioned by the county determined the lack of high-speed internet in the county was much higher than reported by the Federal Communications Commission.
According to FCC maps, 95 percent of the county’s homes were said to have access to high-speed internet.
But the county’s own survey found just 35.7 percent of respondents had the needed broadband access. Another 35.7 percent reported having no internet connection, with most saying the service was not offered in their area. A small percentage said the service is available, but they cannot afford it.
Scharrer said the FCC used the census block method in which if one address in an area is served, the FCC considers them all served. The FCC has begun working to remedy that, but because it could take years, county officials hired TCS Technologies to do their own mapping.
In addition to ARPA money, state and federal grants are available but are based on need, so the county wants its mapping to be accurate.
Among the 86,382 parcels surveyed by his firm, Scharrer said 13,338 are unoccupied properties such as farmland or woods. Of the 73,044 occupied parcels, it was determined that 11,539 are not served. He said of those, 2,681 will be funded at least in part by the federal Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and are being worked on. There is not yet a plan for the remaining 8,858 parcels.
Scharrer said the cost to fill all the gaps in Berrien County is estimated to be between $48.5 million and $84.5 million.
Lincoln Township Supervisor Dick Stauffer asked Scharrer what the cost would be to fill the gaps in his township and Scharrer said between $1 million and $2 million.
“Why the big gap in these estimates?” Stauffer asked. “We’re preparing a grant application. What number do we go with?”
Dissette advised him to go with the high number.
Scharrer said different areas will see different costs and the range is based on estimates in other areas and internet provider bids. He said the ultimate goal is “to light up all of Berrien County.”
The maps prepared by DCS Technology can be viewed on the county’s website at www.berrien county.org.