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Ottawa County, Mich., Seeks Grant Funding to Extend Broadband

The county board of commissioners is asking to be considered for the state’s Realizing Opportunities for Broadband Infrastructure Networks grant, seizing the opportunity to apply before the next round of grants in 2024.

(TNS) — There was absolutely no time to waste earlier this week if Ottawa County wanted to be considered for the Realizing Opportunities for Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) Grant.

The application deadline for the grant was 4 p.m. Tuesday, meaning the county's Board of Commissioners had to make a late addition to its agenda to discuss and approve whether or not to consider entering into a public/private partnership with a Southfield-based Internet service provider and data center, 123Net.

Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, commissioners unanimously agreed to sign a letter-of-intent with 123Net. Had they not jumped at the opportunity, the county may have had to wait until the end of 2024 for the next round of broadband grants, said consultant Doug Webb from Urban Wireless.

"As you know, broadband has become quite the hot-button topic over the last few years," Webb said. "It seemed to rise to the urgent level with people working from home, attending school at home, health care, and just generally conducting business.

"It was recognized that Ottawa County had a lot of need to make sure its residents were fully served," he continued. "Not only with affordable broadband, but just broadband in general."

Webb, who was hired by the county three years ago, said Urban Wireless conducted a survey to see where the need was for broadband in Ottawa County.

"We worked hard to come up with a solution that would work well for the county," Webb said. "The original plan ... was for this county to own and operate a middle-mile fiber network that it could then lease out to certain ISPs (Internet service providers) that wanted to come and take part in providing their services to the county.

"The other unique part of this, as many of you probably know, is a lot of ISPs say they can't get to the rural areas because it's just not cost effective," he added. "So, the other component to this plan was a fixed wireless solution in those areas of the county, which might not be as effective as fiber, but fixed wireless is a means that could be delivered quickly and cost effectively."

Webb said the initial estimates were between $56 million and $59 million.

"As you can imagine, that number is pretty high," he said. "I don't want to say it was unbearable, but it was unfathomable knowing what the county's resources are. Most communities don't have that kind of money on hand, so we started exploring various grant opportunities. The most prominent one is the ROBIN Grant that is being distributed by the state of Michigan."


There were two options for the county board to decide on. The board could agree to pay as much as $3.5 million toward the project, or it could pay $7.5 million. It was recommended by Webb and 123Net that the board go with the $7.5 million option to increase the county's chances of getting the grant.

The total amount of the grant would be $20 million.

Although it was approved by the board, some commissioners experienced sticker shock at the proposed $7.5 million. However, the board didn't want to be outdone by Charter or Comcast.

According to the ROBIN Grant application guidelines, a points rubric was created, and the more points an applicant accrues the more likely they are to be chosen for the money.

According to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity's website: "In early 2022, Gov. Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature passed the Building Michigan Together Plan. The plan includes $250.6 million to expand high-speed Internet service to unserved locations in the state. On Oct. 7, 2022, the U.S. Treasury announced the approval of Michigan's plan for the use of these funds."

The money being distributed by ROBIN to this area would be used to build what is called the "middle mile," which is the high-speed infrastructure used to transmit data to an Internet service provider. Having this infrastructure allows for Internet to reach the "last mile" of users, and is needed if the county wishes to expand Internet access to areas that are typically without the Internet or have limited access to it.


According to documents given to the board by 123NET, the broadband project would create 383 miles of network in Ottawa County. There would be 9,874 addresses that would benefit directly. These addresses are spread across 23 municipalities across the county.

Under the letter of intent, 123NET is agreeing to put in its own $3.5 million and would benefit financially from the investment.

The county's benefit would be the increased access residents would have to high-speed Internet, the increased opportunities for business development in those areas, and increased control over the Internet services provided within the county.

If the funds are secured, the project is anticipated to be completed in December 2026.


Helping to put some of the county commissioners' minds at ease, Webb and the 123Net representatives at the meeting said the letter of intent did not commit the county to spending the $7.5 million.

The letter would create an expectation that the county will pay the money; but should negotiations breakdown, it can still walk away from the deal.

©2023 the Grand Haven Tribune, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.