Milton, Ind., to Expand Its Fiber Footprint

The local investment will give 3,800 residents access to high-speed Internet in an area that has struggled to escape the days of dial-up service.

by Mary Beth Spalding, South Bend Tribune / January 14, 2019
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(TNS) — High-speed Internet in one pocket of Cass County, Ind., will get a boost this year as Milton Township invests in rolling out more fiber.

The township board voted this past December to award $75,000 to Midwest Energy & Communications of Cassopolis to install five miles of fiber that will be able to serve about 80 homes north of U.S. 12 and west of Gumwood Road.

The project got underway Jan. 2 and, if the weather cooperates, could be completed in the first quarter, with home connections available in the spring.

The area in question is the final piece in Milton Township’s puzzle to give its 3,800 residents access to high-speed Internet and banish the days of dial-up, township supervisor Kelly Sweeney said.

It’s a project the township’s been working on for about a decade, driven by the vision of former supervisor Robert Benjamin and a reality everyone seemed to acknowledge, according to Sweeney: that these days, high-speed Internet is simply something “you’ve got to have” for online work, school and entertainment.

Township residents, officials said, complained about slow or no Internet second only to bad roads.

The Federal Communications Commission in 2016 reported that 39 percent of rural Americans, or about 23 million people, lack access to FCC-recommended Internet speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

Milton Township’s efforts echo larger initiatives to boost broadband to underserved rural areas across southwest Michigan, the state and the U.S.

The 2018 Farm Bill signed by President Donald Trump in December includes $350 million to expand a Department of Agriculture program that is offering hundreds of millions in grants and loans to boost high-speed Internet service, or broadband, in rural areas.

The money is “major news, especially for communities in more rural areas like southwest Michigan,” Dan Manning, community technology adviser with Connect Michigan, said.

Connect Michigan is an arm of Connected Nation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand fixed broadband service, such as fiber or cable. Other types of Internet access that rural residents may have, such as satellite or cellular, generally are deemed expensive, slow or unreliable, he said.

Connect Michigan teamed up with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission about seven years ago to assess broadband needs in the region and develop an action plan.

Berrien and Cass scored “on the low end of decent service” in that initial assessment, Manning said.

Today — although there have been improvements — the two counties remain below average for Internet service compared with the rest of the state, according to Manning.

The action plan created by the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission serves as guidance for communities interested in tackling the rural broadband issue, Kris Martin, associate planner with the agency, said.

So improvements have been spotty.

“That’s great Milton Township’s stepping up and doing that,” Martin said.

Martin said his group is ready to help guide communities in developing broadband plans and just recently worked with Connect Michigan to support possible new broadband expansion efforts in Harbor Country.

High-speed “Internet is essentially a utility,” Martin said, and is key in serving residents as well as in attracting and keeping new residents and businesses.

Patty Nowlin, vice president of communications for Midwest Energy & Communications, echoes that thought.

Nowlin said Midwest Energy initiated a plan five years ago to extend fiber Internet — “the gold standard in speed and reliability” — to its 26,000 electric utility members in southwest Michigan.

The co-op has taken on a couple of other projects as well, using its infrastructure to extend Internet fiber and service beyond just its members, where a municipality can contract the initial work, including the current project in Milton Township.

Manning, of Connect Michigan, said it can be difficult to find utilities or telecommunications companies willing to extend fiber to underserved rural areas because a sparse customer base might not make it pay.

Grants and loans that help businesses and municipalities afford the costs are key, he said.

Sweeney, the Milton Township supervisor, said the township has done a good job pursuing grants for other projects, enabling it to apply money to extending broadband access.

He credits the former township supervisor, Robert Benjamin, with recognizing the need a decade ago and working to make sure residents got the service they wanted.

“Between Robert’s vision, the hard work of our officials and the great patience of our residents, our entire township will finally have access to some form of high-speed service,” Sweeney said.

©2019 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.). >Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.