Sylvan Township looking at forming broadband committee

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| 3 min read | by Lonnie Huhman, lhuhman@thesuntimesnews.com |

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sylvan Township residents were thinking about broadband needs, as many of them know the challenges of having no internet access or very slow access.

However, the new reality of being at home working or learning and needing an internet connection or a better one has sped up the thoughts of some into action.

Now a group of township residents want to form a committee to see what can be done.

In her report to the township board at its May 5 meeting, which was held virtually and remotely, township clerk Kathleen Kennedy said some citizens have contacted the board about the possibility of forming a broadband research committee.  

Township resident Patrick Zieske was in attendance at the May 5 meeting to represent the citizen group making the request. He told the board there is interest from residents to get behind this committee and be part of it.

The citizen request said the committee’s mission would be in part to provide an assessment of the overall structure, service levels, and funding requirements and options for the provision of true high-speed broadband service to unserved/underserved areas of Sylvan Township. It would also provide information to the township board so it can decide how to best support and promote the expansion of high speed broadband services.

It was during the public comment, that the township board again heard why there’s a need for better broadband internet service, and although Sylvan resident Joe Manly is only one township resident, what he said probably speaks for many others.

Manly said he’s an engineer and has been working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic and the longer he does so the more apparent it’s becoming that remote working could be the new norm for many workers and professions. He said some residents’ livelihoods could come to depend on broadband.

The issue of broadband is a big one for western Washtenaw County. Like Lyndon and Dexter townships, Sylvan Township has been part of the conversation for the Washtenaw County Broadband Taskforce, which is looking at the needs of the entire county and in its own studies and analysis said there’s a need for broadband and its improvement in Sylvan Township.

The big reason why the need is there is summed up well in the citizens’ request to form the committee.

In the drafted charter for the committee, it states, “Unfortunately the business model for commercial broadband providers doesn’t lend itself to providing true high-speed broadband access in areas that are more rural or more sparsely populated. And the laws of Michigan at present don’t help facilitate the provision of broadband to more sparsely populated areas.”

The drafted charter says the committee would act as a conduit between residents and the township board by gathering and conveying information regarding community broadband needs and expectations, long-range vision and goals, and any problems and/or any specific broadband-related issues that may arise.

There are various questions that could come from the committee’s work.

Zieske said it’s their hope the committee will be formed as a more official and organized research group, and can work with the township board and county task force.

He said one thing the committee could do is get access to things like internet-provider Comcast’s service coverage maps. This would help them get a better idea where the township is served, underserved or not served at all.

One question that could come out of this research is how to fund broadband projects in the township. Maybe the township would follow the Lyndon Township model and pay for broadband improvements themselves through a voter-approved millage. However, this is just one option and there may be various other ways, so this is an area the committee would explore.

The township board sounded in support of forming a committee, but before making a decision they had some questions about some of the wording in the charter, such as how will the committee meetings be announced/advertised and who might chair them. These questions are expected to be cleared up by the time of the next board meeting.

The sentiment from those in the public that spoke during the meeting and from the township board was that broadband improvements are needed, but funding will be a big question.

Township supervisor Tom McKernan said a special board meeting will be called in the next week to make a decision on forming the committee. He said one thing is for sure is that with the virus pandemic it’s never been clearer how much broadband is needed.

If the township moves forward it will begin asking citizens interested in sitting on the committee to submit letters of interest. Ultimately, the committee wants the community’s input.