ST. JOSEPH — Thousands of rural Berrien County homes and businesses will soon have access to high-speed internet thanks to various state and federal grants.

Matthew Sams from Mercury Broadband in Kansas City, Mo., told Berrien County commissioners on April 22 that his company was awarded three grants to bring broadband to more than 2,000 underserved locations in the county.

He said 697 of the locations are being provided access through a grant from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund Phase II initiative. He said many of those locations should be ready to be hooked up by this fall.

Another 635 locations will be provided access to broadband through a Connecting Michigan Communities grant.

Sams said his company is working on a third grant program through the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which is expected to serve 1,053 sites.

He said his company will install 21 fixed wireless access sites, with most of the locations being served wirelessly.

The FCC defines high-speed internet as 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload capabilities. Sams said Mercury Broadband will provide 100/20 service.

Sams said fiber will be installed to 323 of the locations through the third program, with deployment expected to start in 2022. He said those sites will have access to speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps.

FCC rules require his company to provide its customers prices that are comparable to surrounding areas.

“We don’t have any data limitations for the services that we provide, so it’s unlimited data,” he said.

Earlier in the month, commissioners heard from Bob Hance from Midwest Energy Cooperative in Cassopolis.

Hance said his company received an FCC Rural Digital Opportunity Fund grant to bring high-speed internet to 40,000 locations in the state, with 3,700 of them in Berrien County.

“We will be building 3,400 miles of fiber assets across the lower peninsula,” he said. “... We’re going to be building about 800 miles per year. Berrien County is actually in the first phase of the build.”

He said portions of Berrien County may get access to broadband this year, but most of the work will be done in 2022.

To receive $37 million in grant money, Hance said his company has committed to spending another $150 million.

Of that money, he said his company received a $2 million grant to build in Berrien County, with the project expected to cost nearly $7.5 million.

Administrator Brian Dissette said the state and federal money is critical to getting broadband to rural areas of the county.

“Without the funds, more than likely we wouldn’t see construction occurring in rural, low-population density areas,” he said.

Commissioners made getting broadband to all areas of the county a priority in April 2019, when they passed a resolution stating that having reliable, high-speed and affordable access to the internet is crucial to promote the public health and well-being of residents in order to improve their quality of life.

They recently contracted with Merit Network to do a survey to find out which parts of the county don’t have access to high-speed internet. Dissette said Thursday that Merit is expected to make a report to commissioners in May on the results of that survey.

The work that both companies received grants for is being done mostly on the eastern side of the county. Commissioners said they want to find grant opportunities so the rest of the county can get broadband.

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