ST. JOSEPH — Thousands of Berrien County residents learned last March that having high-speed internet is a necessity, not a luxury, when they were forced to start working or learning from their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many school districts scrambled to get hot spots to their students with no access, so they could continue learning online after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay at home order in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
Complaints about the lack of high-speed internet availability were no surprise to Berrien County commissioners. They had already set up the Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force, comprised of three commissioners and staff from the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission. On Jan. 14, the task force introduced a timeline on a survey to find out just how bad the problem is.
“It’s not just a rural issue. It’s throughout the entire county,” said Commissioner Teri Freehling of Baroda, a member of the task force who has previously said she is unable to get high speed internet on her farm even though it’s available on the other side of her street.
But she said trying to get grant funding to fix the problem is hampered because the Federal Communications Commission claims that 95 percent of people in the county have access to high-speed internet, which the agency defines as download speeds of at least 25 megabytes per second and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
She said the survey will better reflect the reality.
In February, residents will be asked to fill out a survey with Merit Network, a nonprofit based in Ann Arbor, about the internet speeds they have available at their homes and businesses.
Charlotte Bewersdorff, Merit vice president for community engagement, told commissioners that this will be part of organization’s Michigan Moonshot Initiative, which seeks to close the digital divide. Merit is governed by 12 public universities in the state.
“We maintain and operate over 4,000 miles of middle mile infrastructure,” she said, adding that there are over 800 connections to the network.
Bewersdorff said she is reaching out to community partners in Berrien County to help get the word out about the upcoming survey.
An informational webinar is scheduled for Jan 25 for organizations that want to be involved in the outreach. For more information, send an email to meritsurvey@ berriencounty.org.
Postcards will be sent on Feb. 8 to areas where there is little to no high-speed internet access, followed by the launch of the larger marketing campaign on Feb. 15.
Data is expected to be collected through March 26. After a month of analysis, Bewersdorff said the results are expected to be presented to the community in May and June.