ST. JOSEPH — Two Berrien County commissioners are beating the drum to bring high-speed broadband internet access to residents.
“Broadband is more than an option,” said Commissioner Teri Freehling of Bainbridge Township. “It’s a necessity.”
Commissioner Ezra Scott, of New Buffalo, agrees that boosting internet speed is crucial to education, building the county’s economy and attracting businesses and employees.
And there are finally big bucks behind the move, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture offering $600 million in grants and loans for projects. This is the first time the agriculture department has provided funding for rural broadband.
Scott said he thinks municipalities and organizations will jump on the broadband bandwagon quickly once they learn about the need and the funding available.
On March 28 the commissioners introduced a resolution stating that the Board of Commissioners recognize that “access to the internet and e-connectivity is a crucial service” and that it will “pursue collaborations and partnerships in the effort to effectively achieve greater access to affordable high speed internet through Berrien County.”
The commissioners’ involvement in the issue stems from conferences they attended in November with top-level federal government officials, including U.S. Housing Secretary Ben Carson, to discuss affordable housing and technology. That meeting grew from connections made at a White House conference for Michigan county commissioners in 2017.
Scott said White House officials have “bent over backwards” to communicate and assist them in their efforts.
There’s a lot of ground to make up. Berrien County is behind the standards of surrounding counties and states when it comes to internet speed, the commissioners said. Cass County, for example, has a download speed of 1 gigabite – or 1,000 megabits – Freehling said.
Michigan ranks 34th among states for broadband adoption, and an estimated 368,000 rural households do not have access to broadband, according to Connected Michigan.
A map from Connected Michigan shows many areas of Berrien County that are lacking speeds of at least 10 megabits per second for downloads and one megabit per second for uploads. Freehling said he believes that map overstates the availability of high-speed internet.
The FCC standard for broadband is 25 megabits per second for downloads and three megabits for uploads. The commissioners conducted their own speed test in November and found that nearly 60 percent of 40 locations did not meet those benchmarks.
One location in St. Joseph had a download speed of 7.36 and an upload speed of 0.87. New Buffalo had a download speed of 4.2 and an upload speed of 0.51.
That means that the New Buffalo Township clerk has trouble downloading county tax records and election documents, Scott said. He spoke to a woman at the Berrien County Youth Fair last summer whose granddaughter failed a class because her family didn’t have internet access.
Freehling, who lives on a working farm, points out that internet access is vital for “precision agriculture” in tracking crops, soil and other elements via GPS. And almost half of Berrien County’s land use is dedicated to agriculture, she noted. Broadband access would benefit web-based marketing for farms, she said.
Freehling said her home cannot get broadband because it is on the wrong side of the road.
Having high-speed internet would benefit everything from online learning to telemedicine, they said.
At last they see a lifeline to bring better technology to businesses and residents.
The U.S.D.A is making available $200 million in grants, with applications due April 29. In addition, it is accepting applications for $200 million in combined loans and grants, and $200 million in low-interest loans. Projects funded through this initiative must serve communities with fewer than 20,000 people with no broadband service, or where service is slower than 10 megabits per second download and 1 mbps upload.
Places like St. Joseph, Benton Harbor and New Buffalo – while designated as cities by the state of Michigan – would qualify as rural under the federal guidelines because of their small populations, Scott said.
Approved projects must create access speeds of at least 25 mbps download and 3 mbps upload. Priority will be awarded for projects that propose to deliver higher-capacity connections to rural homes, businesses and farms.
The maximum grant amount is between $25 million and $50 million, Freehling said. In addition, Michigan is offering $20 million in funding for broadband, and there is money available through the president’s infrastructure initiative.
Berrien County isn’t getting into the internet provider business, but wants to be the “conduit” to municipalities, companies or organizations that want to apply for a grant, Freehling said.
Sole proprietors and limited liability companies are not eligible to apply for the grants, but providers, nonprofit and municipalities can apply. An applicant must have two years of “clean” audits, which Scott said would eliminate start-up companies.
D.C. officials they have met with would like Berrien to be a pilot community because its a rural location close to Chicago, Detroit, Grand Rapids and other metropolitan areas, Scott said.
The commissioners would like to have their board create a subcommittee that would include community partners to pursue broadband opportunities, along with the county’s economic development and information systems offices.
Scott said he has already spoken to Matt Weesaw, the chairman of the Pokagon Band, who said he wants a seat at the table.
The commissioners hope that their resolution serves as a model for providing support for grant applications.
Freehling emphasized that “this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.” Scott estimated that it would take five years to see significant progress.
Now is the time to start, they said.
“There is no reason we can’t advance,” Scott said.
Freehling said she wants Berrien County to be “a top five pick” for those seeking to locate here, “and I don’t want the lack of broadband to hinder that.”
Information on the grant program is at www.usda.gov/reconnect.