Reliable broadband internet coming to rural areas of Van Buren County | Localnews

PAW PAW — If all goes well, rural residents living in areas of Van Buren County could start accessing reliable, high-speed internet services within the coming year.

Starting next week, DCS Technology Design of Chelsea plans to begin surveying properties throughout the county to determine the level of broadband internet access to homes and businesses.

“DCS Technology will be driving down more than 1,300 miles of roads in the county to map roughly 50,000 individual parcels,” says Frank Hardester, Van Buren County administrator. “This is an intense process, but it is essential to having a complete picture of who in our community has internet access and who still needs it.”

Once its survey is complete, in early July, DCS will have a GIS-based map that identifies individual parcels in the county that have access to reliable broadband service and which ones don’t.

Municipalities, such as Van Buren County, that have areas identified as being “unserved” will then be given priority for receiving federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds that support broadband expansion, along with other state and federal fund programs that are now being introduced.

Parcels considered “unserved” are those that have internet speeds of less than 100 Mbps for downloads and less than 20 Mbps for uploads, according to Hardester.

Why a survey is crucial for grant funding

Van Buren County Board of Commissioners decided in January to earmark $7 million of the county’s $14.6 million in ARPA funds toward broadband expansion. In February the board hired DCS Technology Design to begin the survey process.

The survey is crucial, according to Hardester, because existing internet service maps do not indicate which areas of the county have reliable broadband coverage. Some are assumed to have good coverage because they’re located next to cities or large housing subdivisions, but in fact do not and have to settle for less reliable services offered through wireless or DSL carriers.

Chris Sherrar, director of Outside Plant (OSP) Design at DCS, agreed. The company has already conducted similar broadband internet availability surveys in Washtenaw and Leelanau counties in Michigan.

“The most prevalent source of data today is the Federal Communications Commission Form 477, which relies on reporting from every internet service provider (ISP) in the country,” he said. “The data is reported based on ‘Census Blocks,’ not individual home, or business parcels and if a single home within a Census Block has service from an ISP, the entire block is reported as serviced, even though it could include dozens, or more, unserved parcels.

“There are several efforts underway at the federal level to create better reporting systems, but those are not available yet,” he went on to say. “It is up to the individual states, counties, and municipalities to compile correct data to qualify them for federal funding programs for broadband.”

How the surveys are conducted

Employees of DCS Technology Design will be actively mapping Van Buren County through the end of June. During that time, residents can expect to see vehicles equipped with safety flashers and “Broadband Survey” signage on the sides with the company name. They will make frequent stops as they document each area and may stop and walk some areas to locate buried systems or cables in easements.

“There are over 50,000 parcels in Van Buren County, but many of those are unoccupied – Agricultural, State Land, Parks, etc.,” Scharrer said. “But all occupied parcels – homes and businesses – will be included in the survey.

“We survey the systems and technologies available to each individual parcel using experienced telecommunications engineers, physically driving each road mile in the county,” he continued to say. “Most of the work is done from the road and does not require interaction with the homeowners, but if they see us out there, they are welcome to ask questions. We do learn quite a bit from the residents, but we make our own assessments about capabilities and availability based on the technologies we find.”

How survey results will be used

Once the survey has been completed the county will then solicit bids based from internet service providers to build the infrastructure in the areas identified, according to Hardester. Once the bids have been reviewed, the board of commissioners will then award funds based upon priorities established in the ARPA guidelines and local needs.

Any parcel served by DSL or wireless service will automatically be considered unserved or underserved as the reliability and speeds provided by those technologies will not meet the new federal standard for sufficient service.

Ensuring the entire county has access to reliable broadband service will be an expensive venture, with the cost determined by the results of the survey. The $7 million allocated by the county with its ARPA funds may not be enough, county officials caution.

However, other funding sources are available through the United States Department of Agriculture ReConnect program; the recently enacted federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program which will appropriate $42.45 billion for broadband expansion throughout the United States; the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund that plans to allocate $313 million this year for expansion of broadband internet services to rural areas; and the new Connecting Michigan Communities Grand Program, administered through the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget.

The county’s Internet Taskforce Committee met at the end of March to discuss ways to help fund broadband expansion efforts, with several members, such as Don Blackmond, supervisor of Keeler Township, stating his board has allocated $112,000 in matching funds for broadband expansion in their community. Ross Stein, South Haven Township supervisor, said his board is discussing allocating its remaining ARPA funds as a match for broadband expansion; while Don Stull, supervisor for Paw Paw Township, and Ken Harrington, Covert Township supervisor, stated their boards are considering similar action.

What kind of broadband service can people expect?

The main purpose of various state and federal funding programs is to support new construction of high-speed broadband similar to that offered by such companies as Comcast, Bloomingdale Communications, Spectrum and Frontier, according to Hardester and Scharrer.

“With the new threshold criteria, only Hybrid Fiber Coaxial (HFC) for cable modem and Fiber to the Home (FTTH) qualify,” Scharrer said. “How we accomplish that will depend on the different situations. Part of the survey is to identify what makes the most practical sense to build cable or fiber to these unserved areas. Fiber is generally more economical today, but there may be situations where extending an existing HFC system makes better financial sense.”

Van Buren County will have different options for how an existing or new Internet Service Provider is funded to provide service to the rural areas. There is usually a cost-sharing component that will have to be provided by municipalities, according to Scharrer.

Internet service providers can also apply for federal and state funds to expand their broadband coverage in rural areas.

“There will be options for an ISP to apply for funding directly through the various agencies, as is the case with RDOF and USDA),” he said.

By being proactive and setting aside $7 million for broadband expansion, Van Buren County is well poised for receiving funds for broadband expansion, Scharrer thinks.

“By having the survey as precise as it will be, it will make the process of applying for new funds much easier, and will give Van Buren County priority over other areas that are less prepared,” he said.

That’s good news for economic developers, such as Zach Morris, who are trying to retain and attract new businesses to Van Buren County, and improve the county’s quality of life, in general.

“Broadband access levels the playing field between urban and rural communities,” said Morris, who is executive director of Market Van Buren. “The reality is, many of our Van Buren County neighbors are missing out on educational resources, access to healthcare, and remote work opportunities because they do not have high-speed internet access. The more homes and businesses we can get connected to the internet, the better off our community and residents will be.”