Despite Forward Progress, Broadband Access Remains an Issue in Michigan

In January, Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation to strengthen statewide broadband Internet access efforts, but geography and a lack of infrastructure continue to pose challenges.

by Jake Allen, Holland Sentinel / July 2, 2018
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(TNS) — LAKETOWN TWP., Mich. — For Connie Valkema, at-home internet has been an integral, but unreliable part of her livelihood for years.

When Valkema, a resident of Laketown Township for about the past five years, found out Comcast Corp. was expanding its network to bring high-speed internet service to most of Laketown and Saugatuck townships, she became emotional.

"I got overly excited and probably started crying," Valkema said. "My husband looked at me like I was ridiculous, but it's a big deal to me. Once our internet runs out, I am kind of screwed."

At-home internet is vital to Valkema as she works 100 percent from home, full-time for an automotive direct-mail advertising company.

Valkema and her family use satellite services from Dish Network.

"The speeds are just OK," she said. "Generally the 4G LTE on my phone is faster. The satellite internet blacks out if it rains or snows hard."

The worst part about satellite internet is the data cap Dish Network has for services, Valkema said. Once her family uses a certain amount of data each month, Valkema's service is slowed to the point where she doesn't even bother using it.

She could purchase more data, but it costs about $10 per 1 gigabyte, which she "blows through" in about a day and a half of work.

Even before she reaches her data limits, Valkema said her at-home internet only reaches speeds around 13 megabits per second, but she pays for up to 25 Mbps. After her service slows down from the data cap, Valkema said her internet runs at less than 1 Mbps.

"This is going to sound pathetic, but I cut my family off from internet use," Valkema said. "I am the only one who uses it."

Valkema sometimes has to work from the local Biggby Coffee or her sister's house on the northside of Holland for internet access once she reaches her monthly data limit.

Dish Network's slow speeds and data caps have begun to have an impact on her 5-year-old daughter, who will start kindergarten in the fall.

"I've wanted to start her on educational websites," Valkema said. "She knows how to use an iPad from her young fives program, but I don't let her touch any of our stuff at home because of our internet situation."

Although her young children haven't had to work on homework using the internet at home yet, Valkema said she was becoming worried as they progressed in school.

"I feel like we were falling behind," Valkema said. "We've been without reliable internet since we moved here and it's been a culture shock."

All of that changed for Valkema and thousands of other Laketown and Saugatuck township residents when Comcast announced in early May it was making a multi-million dollar investment to expand its network.

The company plans to complete the project by the end of the year and expand to as much of the townships as possible, although a network map has not been completed yet.

"It's important to keep up with the rest of the world," Valkema said. "It's important to have access to the information our kids are going to need for school."

A big announcement

Laketown Township Manager Al Meshkin said about two-thirds of his township geographically and about one-third of the Laketown population are currently cut off from reliable internet service access.

This means around 2,000 residents in Laketown are cut off.

Michelle Gilbert, vice president of public relations for Comcast's Heartland Region, said crews finalized network designs for Laketown and Saugatuck townships in May.

Infrastructure in parts of the townships will begin to be laid and connected to the existing network in June or July, Gilbert said.

"This is a big deal and it's going to do so much for this township," Meshkin said. "This is the best proposal I've seen from a private company and there is no question about it."

Although Comcast is making a large investment in Laketown and Saugatuck, the infrastructure build should not cost residents anything, Gilbert said. Residents in the townships have similar needs, which made it cost effective for Comcast to expand its network to these areas.

Advancements in technology also made the expansion to the two townships possible.

"In these two townships, there tends to be large lots of land," Gilbert said. "With the technology available now, we are able to build fiber to the home versus building traditional coax cable."

According to the Federal Communications Commission, fiber optic technology converts to light electrical signals and sends the light through transparent glass fibers about the diameter of a human hair.

Traditional coaxial cables use radio frequencies as the medium to transmit data, which means there is a larger amount of signal loss compared to fiber technology.

This loss of signal that comes with traditional coax has made it difficult to serve Laketown and Saugatuck townships in the past because of large-size properties and widespread homes.

Now Comcast can build fiber to each home without building or extending main facilities to each one at about the same cost as using traditional coax cables to build the network out, Gilbert said.

A group of committed citizens

It was a small group of residents who researched options, companies and technologies to finally bring reliable and fast broadband internet services to their township.

"I wouldn't use the word 'fight,'" said David Slikkers, a Laketown resident for 32 years. "We were really diligent and were working on the project on behalf of the community."

The group first came together to support the township's $8.7 million millage in May 2016, which would have been used to build a township-owned fiber optic internet cable network.

"We were the original Laketown Fiber Optics Yes! Committee," said Lynn Smith, a Laketown resident for 33 years. "There were more of us preceding the May vote, then just a handful of us carried the ball for the next two years."

The millage asked residents if they wanted to be taxed up to 16 years to pay off bonds for the project. If approved, the network would have been constructed, then the township would have bid out the system's management to a private company.

Additional fees for monthly service from the private company would have also been issued to residents.

Slikkers, Smith and other members of the group supporting the millage placed supportive signage throughout the township, talked to residents, formed a Facebook group and even created a calculator for residents to compare cost of the millage to their current internet costs.

While the millage detractors acknowledged the benefits of a fiber optic network, there were questions around if the township adequately vetted the idea. A Laketown Fiber NO Facebook page was created to rival the group in support of the millage.

"That group was very vocal," Slikkers said. "They were primarily from the north part of the township, where they already had service and they didn't want this additional tax burden that the millage would have put on them."

Opponents also objected to the project's funding. In 2016, Laketown resident Kathy McCleod pointed out that millage costs would vary with taxable value, but build the same network for everyone.

Tensions between the two groups began to rise and some "nefarious" actions occurred shortly before the vote when signs were sabotaged.

The millage ultimately was shot down by voters 53 percent to 47 percent, with just shy of 40 percent voter turnout.

At a June 2016 meeting, shortly after the millage failed, Meshkin called for a revote with support from other township officials. The revote idea was immediately met with criticism from residents.

"We already voted this down," Tim Nowakowski told the Laketown Township Board of Trustees at the time. "Why is this coming back again?"

In August 2016, the board opted to not pursue a new millage. Township Supervisor Terry Hofmeyer, while expressing his support for the millage, said he felt a second vote was "rushing the point" and other township board members agreed the first millage failed because lack of information.

Discussion of the topic, between officials and those who were both for and against the millage, picked up again in March 2017.

In May 2017, the township discussed hiring high school students to go door-to-door to educate residents on fiber optic internet. The township budgeted $10,000 in the fiscal year 2017 budget for education on fiber optics.

The debate heated up once again at a May 2017 township board meeting where many residents said hiring students was a "waste" of taxpayer dollars, especially since there were no concrete plan or vote to implement fiber.

The township board voted in June of 2017 to halt spending in pursuit of township-owned broadband. The unanimous vote came after a bout of citizen comments during the meeting from those who supported the township in its broadband efforts and those who didn't.

While general fund dollars were no longer to be spent on internet access efforts, township staff members were still going to dedicate time to work on solutions, Hofmeyer said after the vote.

Even with the township's efforts, Meshkin said several factors prevented success.

"Bringing broadband here was going to cost a lot of money," Meshkin said. "You have the tax concept and the expense. That was always an issue and there are a certain number of residents who said they don't need it."

After the millage failed, six members of the Laketown Fiber Optics Yes! Committee, including Smith and Slikkers, got to work on finding other solutions.

"The thought process was, what if a group of private citizens looks into this?" said Becky Bruns, a township resident for 12 years. "What do you think we would find?"

The group began reviewing what went wrong and right with the failed millage, researching a variety of internet service products and spending hundreds of dollars of their own funds in the process.

"We looked at every possibility, every kind of technology," Bruns said. "We exhausted ourselves tracking down and vetting the different firms we looked at. We had a spreadsheet of the different criteria important to us."

Bruns even went as far as emailing fellow members of the group a link to a story about citizens in the United Kingdom, who built their own broadband network.

"Nothing was out of the scope of our imagination," Bruns said.

Many of the internet provider companies were impressed by the group's knowledge of the technology. The ultimate goal was to entice a provider to build out into the township one way or another.

"We never let go of the sight of our mission as a group," Bruns said. "Our mission was to bring broadband internet accessibility to all of Laketown Township."

For Smith, Comcast's proposal was the perfect solution to the township's internet problems.

"We were able to deliver this without taxpayer dollars," Smith said. "It's just a beautiful outcome for Laketown and Saugatuck townships."

Life without reliable internet

Before Comcast's announcement, Laketown residents tried just about everything and anything to get reliable access.

"There are lots of ways of getting internet, just not a lot of good ways," Meshkin said. "Usually the speed would be very slow or the service is very expensive."

Residents in underserved areas have relied on satellite services, fixed wireless services and cellular data packages, Meshkin said.

"It definitely was a hindrance," Meshkin said. "There is no question about it. It's been a hindrance in many ways. It began to hurt property values."

Bill Gillmore, a member of the citizen group and a six-year resident of the township, uses Verizon Wireless for at-home internet services, which typically reaches speeds of up to only 3 Mbps.

To put that in perspective, up to 25 Mbps is the lowest speed package Comcast will offer to most residents in Laketown and Saugatuck townships once it completes network expansion.

"It's really held development in our township back," Gillmore said. "We know some developers in the township who have struggled to sell homes because the lack of internet access."

Without reliable at-home internet, Smith said parents in the township cannot work from home to spend more time with their children and patients can't go online to see lab results or look up medical records.

"It means high school kids can't do their homework online like their peers," Smith said. "It means a very unlevel playing field for students depending on where they live."

In the past, most students in the township ended up working on homework at the local Burger King or at a coffee shop in downtown Saugatuck, Smith said.

Using fixed wireless services, Bruns said she is able to reach speeds of 12 Mbps by paying extra.

However, the service is interrupted by heavy rain, fog and snow and only works if there is a clear line of sight between the tower and the homes getting service.

People in more urban areas take for granted constant access to Netflix, social media and other amenities, she said.

"It's really hard to comprehend what it is like without it until you've lived it for a decade," Bruns said.

Eric Frederick is the executive director of Connect Michigan, a nonprofit subsidiary of Connected Nation purposed to advocate for more broadband internet access, adoption and use across Michigan.

In today's age broadband internet is vital for many reasons, Frederick said.

Everything from healthcare, agriculture, public safety, tourism and education to economic development requires the power of broadband internet to function at the highest capacity, Frederick said.

How connected is Michigan?

While state, local and private sector officials agree accurate data is hard to come by for broadband internet access across Michigan and the country, Connected Nation and its subsidiaries are working hard to change that.

Most of the data comes from the Federal Communications Commission, which requires large telecommunication companies to self-report which areas of the country they serve.

The issue with FCC data is it's broken down by census block, and if one home in the block is served then the FCC considers the entire block served.

Census blocks are not consistently sized and are bounded by visible features, such as roads, railroad tracks, property lines and county limits, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Census blocks in suburban and rural areas may be large, irregular and bounded by a variety of features, such as roads, streams, and transmission lines. In remote areas, census blocks may encompass hundreds of square miles," according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Since 2009, Connect Michigan has been working to improve the accuracy of the FCC's data to map out the unserved and underserved areas of the state.

"Mapping and figuring out where service is and is not is one of the foundations of what we do," Frederick said. "We can't begin to work on the problem unless we know where it is."

To improve the accuracy, Connect Michigan takes FCC data and creates maps of each individual provider's coverage. Then Connect Michigan reaches out to those providers and gives them the opportunity to update and improve the accuracy of the maps.

After, Connect Michigan compiles the maps for a more accurate picture of broadband internet coverage in the state. It's a top-down and bottom-up approach, Frederick said.

There are several speed-tier definitions for what is considered fast and reliable internet.

Comcast says a household with a few family members who do light internet surfing and stream some video would be adequately served with a 25 Mbps plan.

The majority of Comcast's customers, however, are on plans with speeds at 75 Mbps or higher, with the 150 Mbps plan becoming the most popular, Gilbert said.

Connect Michigan has a different perspective on speed-tiers:

Speeds around 3 Mbps are considered dial-up speeds, but Connect Michigan still maps this tier to show where the most basic service is available in Michigan.

10 Mbps is a "fairly decent connection" and can be delivered through many different types of technology, Frederick said. The 10 Mbps speed tier is also the benchmark the FCC uses to provide subsidies for providers to build out in rural areas across the state and country.

The FCC's actual definition of broadband internet was set at 25 Mbps in 2015.

A total of 122,000 households in Michigan are unable to access internet speeds of 10 Mbps, which leaves out 3.2 percent of households.

This data is for fixed, terrestrial connections only, which means households that use satellite or mobile technologies to access the internet will fall into the unserved categories.

This is because Connect Michigan does not consider these technologies to be stationary, permanent or reliable, Fredrickson said.

Connect Michigan's data also does not take into account the unreliability of certain technologies in different weather conditions or data caps providers can put on consumers to slow down services.

A total of 381,000 households in Michigan are unable to access fixed broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps, which leaves 9.9 percent of households out, according to Connect Michigan.

In Allegan County, where Saugatuck and Laketown townships are located, 23.48 percent of households cannot access internet at speeds of 25 Mbps, while 6.83 percent of households cannot access speeds of 10 Mbps, according to Connect Michigan. This data excludes consumers accessing these speeds using mobile connections.

Just one county north is Ottawa County, where only 1.93 percent of households cannot access the internet at speeds of 25 Mbps and only .08 percent of households cannot access at speeds of 10 Mbps or greater.

Net neutrality concerns

As Comcast works to bring reliable and fast internet access to Laketown and Saugatuck, another issue is in the back of some residents' minds.

"We have to protect the neutrality of the internet," Bruns said.

Net neutrality rules were put in place in 2015 under President Barack Obama with the purpose of ensuring internet providers couldn't block or slow down certain websites or prioritize their content over others.

In December, the FCC under Republican Chairman Ajit Pai voted to roll back those rules. The net neutrality rules were too restrictive on businesses and discouraged investment in network upgrades, Pai said.

The rules were officially repealed in June and critics of the move fear internet users will have to pay more to access certain websites or will see some sites blocked altogether.

Providers such as AT&T and Verizon have said they will not and do not block or slow certain content. Comcast has also said it does not block or slow content and has no plans to offer paid prioritization.

Some members of Congress are trying to pass legislation that would overturn the FCC's repeal vote. The measure aims to restore the agency's net neutrality rules and passed the Senate on May 16.

If the resolution gets a vote in the House, it may not succeed — and even then, President Trump is not expected to sign any legislation that would restore net neutrality.

Pushing forward

State Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, whose district includes Laketown and Saugatuck Townships, said she hears about internet accessibility concerns from her constituents often.

"I have 21 townships in my district and people in every single one have problems with internet access," Whiteford said. "It's a really big deal."

In late February, Whiteford introduced legislation to make internet more accessible in rural areas throughout the state.

House Bill 5670 would create a seven-member board representing townships, counties and telecommunication providers. The team would be tasked with identifying areas in Michigan that are unserved or underserved and develop policies to award grants.

The legislation currently sits in the House Committee on Communications and Technology.

In late January, Gov. Rick Snyder signed an executive order creating the Michigan Consortium for Advanced Networks, which is directed to establish a roadmap to help strengthen statewide broadband internet access.

The group, made up of legislators as well as stakeholders from various backgrounds, is focusing on increasing access and adoption of broadband internet in the state. It's expected to submit a final report by Aug. 1 to the governor, detailing ways to improve access and connectivity.

Therese Empie, a strategy adviser for the governor's office, helped staff the consortium. She said the state and federal government will continue to incentivize private companies to build broadband networks in rural areas with money from different funds, such as the Connect America Fund.

"What we are working on is getting everyone access and the majority of the people in the state to adopt internet services," Empie said. "We know it's a huge economic factor and it's also a huge factor for our students."

The expansion of reliable internet access in Laketown Township will allow the township to begin streaming its board of trustees meetings and could allow the older population to live in their homes longer with access to telemedicine, Meshkin said.

For areas still without reliable and fast internet access in the state, the future looks bright.

"There's a lot of emerging technology that can solve some of these connection problems," Frederick said. "Technologies that can use T.V. white space or improve fixed wireless and satellite services."

As improvements are developed, Gilbert said the importance of reliable internet cannot be forgotten.

"Internet today is not a luxury, it's a necessity," Gilbert said. "We rely on internet every single day for important functions like paying bills, staying connected with family and doing homework."

©2018 Holland Sentinel, Mich. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.