A transformational moment for broadband in Washtenaw County
Washtenaw County is planning to use nearly $15 million dollars of American Rescue Plan funds to fill the gaps and bring a digital infrastructure to all county households.
On Sept. 16, the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force issued a press release about the good news.
“At their meeting last evening, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners approved funding that will close the digital divide in the entirety of the county and achieve 100 percent high speed broadband internet access to every home. $14.6 million in American Rescue Plan funds were obligated by the Board, which, when coupled with recent broadband grant awards, will allow digital infrastructure to be built and offered to every residence, regardless of address.”
“This is a huge win for every resident of Washtenaw County,” Barbara Fuller, Chair of the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, said in the press release. “The Board of Commissioners tasked us with achieving countywide broadband equity more than 5 years ago, and here we are! I’m grateful for their collective leadership and willingness to acknowledge that access to reliable high speed broadband internet service is a necessity, and then provide the funding to help those who would have otherwise been left behind. All Washtenaw County residents will soon have the ability to virtually learn, stay in touch with family, benefit from telemedicine and telebanking and so much more. This is truly life-changing, for so many.”
The Sun Times News (STN) followed up with Washtenaw County Commissioner Shannon Beeman of District 3, which encompasses Bridgewater Township, Freedom Township, Lodi Township, Manchester Township, Village of Manchester, City of Milan, Saline Township, City of Saline, Sharon Township, and York Township.
Beeman said these funds will help provide broadband access to every home in Washtenaw County that lacks the physical infrastructure for reliable high-speed internet. She said there’s also an $800,000 investment included for internet affordability to help the residents who cannot afford internet service.
In the press release, District 1 Commissioner and member of the Broadband Task Force Jason Maciejewski said, “Allocating funds to make the broadband infrastructure available to all Washtenaw County residents is a transformational moment. Tele-health services, educational access, work-from-home opportunities, and the ability to accomplish everyday tasks online will become available countywide. I am proud of the hard work and dedication of the Broadband Task Force and appreciative of the support from all of my fellow County Commissioners. Their collective determination to bridge the digital divide in our county is truly remarkable. This is what local government is all about, positively impacting people’s lives.”
Maciejewski, who represents cities of Dexter and Chelsea, and the townships of Scio, Lima, Dexter, Sylvan and Lyndon, told STN this will help provide every resident in the county a chance to participate in a 21st century economy.
“It’s a big moment,” Maciejewski said and he commended the Broadband Task Force for the important role it’s played in preparing and strategizing for an opportunity like this. He said they didn’t know these funds would become available, so to be here now with a plan is testament to the work of the task force.
Vice Chair of the Broadband Task Force and Lyndon Township resident Ben Fineman summarized the feelings of the group by stating in the press release, “As Lyndon Township has just recently completed its broadband construction, I can attest to how much it improves the quality of life, for everyone. I am grateful for the commitment from each of the members of the Broadband Task Force, their work to gather the information our County Commissioners used to make this historic decision required immense commitment to finding a solution. Funding digital accessibility is the right thing to do as it will provide countless opportunities for those who have been denied access for far too long.”
STN asked Beeman what exactly will be done and when.
“Laying fiber for broadband access in nearly every township of Washtenaw County,” Beeman answered in an email to STN.
She said some of the work to connect Washtenaw County has begun through the Rural Digital Opportunity Grant Fund (RDOF) grants and other funding the county has received. The ARP bids are coming in, and Beeman said with those the Washtenaw County Broadband Taskforce will then make selections soon.
“This is a multi-year project; however, some of the bids are coming in with an estimated completion within 12 months, and others a bit longer based upon commitments and current projects,” Beeman said. “We are aware of a shortage of broadband fiber, caused by pandemic manufacturing delays, and this may impact the timeline as well.”
In noting the combining of funding help to make this happen, Beeman the aim was to connect every household in Washtenaw County— leave no one behind —and these ARP/County dollars allow them to connect those who would have been missed.
Of the estimated 8,479 premises identified as unserved, Beeman said over half will benefit from RDOF that was announced late last year and the remaining homes fall under the ARP/Washtenaw County funds approved at this week’s Board of Commissioners meeting.
“Bottom line is the RDOF received through the diligent effort of the Broadband Task Force will take out a large portion of those without broadband access, and these ARP/County funds will fill the remaining gaps across Washtenaw County,” said Beeman.
In her own statement in the announcement, Beeman said “Allocating $14.6 million of our $72 million American Rescue Funds was a big ask; we had some difficult conversations, but maintained open lines of communication, which got us to where we are today.”
STN asked Beeman, so who will benefit?
“All residents of Washtenaw County will benefit from county-wide internet connectivity, whether it be physical access or affordability,” she answered. “Teachers will have the ability to teach students remotely from any corner of the county on a reliable connection. Doctors will reach patients anywhere in Washtenaw with the secure connection required for tele-medicine appointments. Seniors will feel less isolated regardless of their zip code. Businesses will be attracted to the area and entrepreneurship will grow with the correct internet infrastructure.”
As for next steps, the press release said, “In the short term, the Broadband Task Force will now engage with ISP providers to develop a construction/implementation schedule that meets the requirements of the American Rescue Plan Act and update their webpage as information is available and timelines are identified.”
And as far as long-term, a goal of the Commissioners includes ensuring financial factors do not prohibit access to high speed internet as well as digital literacy and educational opportunities for those who may be new to navigating the internet.