Broadband Dead Zones In Ann Arbor’s Backyard

Initiatives are underway to address lack of broadband access in rural Washtenaw County

Washtenaw County faces a host of equity challenges — and if you don’t believe that, you’re not looking very hard.

One of those challenges, incredibly, is the inability to get high-speed Internet access in certain rural parts of the county. Corporations just aren’t willing to invest in infrastructure where there’s not a critical mass of customers.

What does that mean for residents? Imagine sitting in a minivan with your kids outside the library at night, because it’s the only way to get Internet access so that they can do their homework. Or being an entrepreneur who’s forced to work at a coffeeshop because you can’t get high-speed Internet at your home office.

This problem isn’t unique to Washtenaw County, of course. Nationwide, 39% of residents in rural communities lack access to broadband, compared to 4% in urban areas, according to the FCC’s 2016 Broadband Progress Report.

Washtenaw County has tried to tackle this disparity in the past. That county-led attempt— a public-private partnership called Wireless Washtenaw — foundered almost a decade ago.

But now there seems to be some momentum, both locally and at the federal level, to bridge the rural/urban broadband gap.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to offer at least $60 million in loans to build out broadband infrastructure in rural communities, as part of the USDA Rural Development’s Telecommunications Program. And on Aug. 3, the Federal Communications Commission approved a mechanism that will raise nearly $2 billion over 10 years to expand high-speed Internet access in rural areas.

Closer to home, on Aug. 8 a rural township in Washtenaw County is asking voters to approve funding for a broadband build-out. [Update: It passed overwhelmingly.] And last week the county board appointed members to a committee that will explore options for countywide broadband access and equity.

This column takes a look at those local initiatives.

Ballot Proposal for Broadband Funding

On Aug. 8, voters in Lyndon Township, located in the northwest corner of Washtenaw County, will weigh in on a ballot proposal to fund broadband infrastructure.

If approved, the new tax would raise up to $7 million in bond funding to build a public fiber optic network that would provide high-speed Internet access to Lyndon Township residents. [Update: With 43% turnout, voters approved the proposal with support from 66% of voters.]

Click here to see the ballot language.

The rationale for this bond is described on the Michigan Broadband Cooperative’s website:

High-speed internet access is not available to most Lyndon Township residents. The township board has investigated solutions with existing providers capable of providing FCC minimum broadband standards and found none willing to invest the money to build infrastructure in Lyndon Township.
In June of 2016, Lyndon Township residents received a survey with the summer tax bill aimed at gauging public interest in broadband. 83% of the registered voter respondents said that having high-speed Internet was “important “or “very important”. Additionally, when asked to prioritize a list of fifteen issues respondents ranked broadband access as second in importance, behind only “protecting water quality.”
The township board funded a feasibility study in 2016 to understand how this issue might be addressed. The feasibility study recommended that the township build a fiber optic network.

Here’s a link to the (very detailed) feasibility study. An FAQ is provided here. One thing to note: Residents would still pay a monthly fee — an estimated $35-$60 — if they decided to use the network, in addition to the tax.

The Michigan Broadband Collective, which is supporting Lyndon Township’s ballot proposal, is described on its website as “a grassroots initiative to advance broadband in rural Michigan.” Two of the MBC board members — Barb Fuller and Ben Fineman — are also part of a new group formed by Washtenaw County to address broadband inequities.

County Forms Group to Explore Broadband Options

At its July 12 meeting, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to create a Broadband Subcommittee.

The broad purpose of the 12-member group is to “to explore immediate and long-term countywide broadband access and equity.” (The board amended the original resolution to add another commissioner seat on the committee — at the request of Commissioner Conan Smith — though that change isn’t reflected in the meeting minutes.)

On Aug. 2, the board made appointments to the committee. They are:

What’s Next?

So far there are scant details about how the county’s broadband subcommittee will proceed, as the group hasn’t yet convened. I’m hoping that their meetings will be open to the public and that we’ll have opportunities to give input on their work.

Barb Fuller

Those efforts aside, I’ll be curious to see if other communities follow the lead of Lyndon Township, even if voters reject the Aug. 8 proposal. [Update: They approved it.]

I’d also like to give a shout-out to Barb Fuller, who has dogged this issue for years. She’s been a major behind-the-scenes force and deserves credit for that.

One More Thing

[Note: Added after initial publication] Legislation introduced by State Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-District 52)earlier this year would give communities another tool to address broadband disparities.

House Bill 4162, introduced in February 2017, would amend the Michigan Public Improvements Act to allow townships to use special assessments to fund broadband and communications projects for areas that lack high-speed Internet. It was referred to the House Committee on Communications & Technology.

Lasinski represents a district that covers the western edge of Ann Arbor, all of western Washtenaw County as well as the county’s northern townships. Lyndon Township is part of that district.

Additional Resources:

Broadband in Rural Areas — Federal Communications Commission

The digital divide between rural and urban America’s access to internet” — CBS News, Aug. 4, 2017

FCC commits to expanded rural deployment”— Broadcasting & Cable News, Aug. 3, 2017

FCC offers ‘reverse-auction’ to expand rural broadband access”–Engadget, Aug. 3, 2017

Connecting Across the Digital Divide” — NPR On Point Podcast, Aug. 2, 2017

Rural and urban America divided by broadband access” — Brookings Institution, July 18, 2016

“Microsoft wants to close rural broadband gap by tapping unused TV spectrum”–USA Today, July 11, 2017

Life Offline: Rural residents’ frustrating search for high-speed Internet access” — Ann Arbor Observer, June 2017

Technology Is Improving, So Why Is Rural Broadband Access Still a Problem?” — US News & World Report, June 2016