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From left, Khaiden Porter, 11, Kerriona Willis, 11, and Alyssa Perkins, 10, are pictured with two Dell Chromebooks donated by Comcast to the Boys & Girls Club of Benton Harbor Fettig Youth Campus as part of new Wi-Fi-connected “lift zones” being introduced across Berrien County.

BENTON HARBOR — More Berrien County residents will have access to high-speed internet thanks to the seven “lift zones” recently installed by Comcast.

The lift zones were placed at five senior centers, a community center and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor Fettig Youth Campus.

“It’s almost like a public Wi-Fi, where it broadcasts so people can tap into it as an open network,” said Berrien County Commissioner Teri Freehling, who has been working on bringing broadband access to all of the county since 2018.

She said surrounding households may be able to access the lift zone from their homes. In addition, people will be able to park near the lift zones to access the Wi-Fi.

Other than the Boys & Girls Clubs, the lift zones were also installed earlier this month at:

Buchanan Area Senior Center, 810 Rynearson St., Buchanan

Central County Senior Center, 4083 E. Shawnee Road, Berrien Springs

Greater Niles Senior Citizens Center, 1109 Bell Road, Niles

New Troy Community Center, 13372 California Road, New Troy

River Valley Senior Center, 13321 Red Arrow Highway, Harbert

Senior Citizens Center, 225 Colfax Ave., Benton Harbor

An estimated 65 percent of Berrien County residents don’t have access to high-speed internet, according to a recent survey commissioned by the county. The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as 25 mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

Freehling said before the survey was done earlier this year, the FCC stated 92 percent of county households had access to broadband – including her house. But she knew that wasn’t true.

“Before the pandemic hit, I had a speed of 10/1. That was the fastest I could get with my satellite connection,” she said, adding the FCC doesn’t consider satellite connections to be true broadband because of latency issues.

Freehling said some places in the county have even less access to broadband.

In Weesaw Township, she said they found 82 percent of households don’t have access.

While the lift zones are great, Freehling said they aren’t the answer to the county’s lack of broadband.

“It’s kind of a Band-Aid for the bigger issue that we have in Berrien County, and that’s the lack of true connectivity,” she said. “It’s kind of a gap stop to help people to be able to connect, especially for school-aged kids. If they have a device but don’t have a connection at home, this could be an option for them.”

Feeling lifted

Each lift zone also received 20 laptops donated by Comcast.

Freehling said each location is in the process of setting up how the lift zones and laptops can be accessed by the public.

The Berrien County Broadband Internet Taskforce has been meeting regularly to bring broadband to more of the county. Freehling said companies like Comcast, Mercury Broadband and Midwest Energy and Communications have received state and federal grants to bring broadband to more of the county.

Comcast has placed more than 1,000 lift zones throughout the country, according to a news release from Comcast.

In addition, Comcast donated $10,000 to support the Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) programs for club members.

“Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor is proud to partner with Comcast and other community partners to launch lift zones in Southwest Michigan,” said Mackenzie Kastl, Boys & Girls Clubs of Benton Harbor chief executive officer, in the release. “We are grateful for Comcast’s continued support of the club and our STEAM programs. The new lift zone will help us further advocate for digital literacy and support our goal to offer youth in our community the tools and resources they need to excel.”

When contacted by phone, Debra Piscola with Comcast said the lift stations are part of Project Up – the company’s $10 billion commitment to bring digital equity to more people.

“Our goal is to impact 50 million Americans over the next decade,” she said. “These dollars will be used to continue and expand the array of programs we created to close the digital divide across the country and in Berrien County.”

Piscola said Comcast also offers Internet Essentials, which connects low-income households to the internet.

“We started it 10 years ago and across the country, we’ve connected more than 10 million American to the internet,” she said. “Just in Michigan alone, that’s 720,000 people.”

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