Bart and Mary Beth Hammer would welcome any solution to their internet woes.
“You can get a satellite dish, but it’s so slow,” said Bart Hammer, airline pilot and Lyndon Township resident. “And you only get a small amount of data [so] that you can’t stream anything.”
Many rural areas of Michigan don’t have access to high-speed internet. The entire world of information may be at the fingertips of people living in better-connected urban areas and in small towns across America. Yet, just a few miles beyond the city limits, access to broadband internet starts dropping off fast.
“It’s disheartening when I see the opportunities that are being missed in our communities that don’t have any connectivity,” said Ben Fineman, president of Michigan Broadband Cooperative.
For more than two years, Fineman and the other volunteer board members of Michigan Broadband Cooperative have been lobbying local township governments to consider a publicly-funded solution: Build a municipally owned broadband network infrastructure, and consider partnering with a third-party internet service provider to finally bring workable internet connections to rural residents.
That very proposal will be on Tuesday’s primary election ballot for voters in Lyndon Township, near Ann Arbor. After surveys, feasibility studies, and public meetings, the township board found enough public support to put the measure to a vote.
“We found a whole lot of pent-up demand and frustration,” Fineman said. “People’s frustration has just been growing with the increasing inability to participate in modern society. It’s really created an equity issue.”
Fineman says local school districts that send students home with internet-connected devices like iPads to access textbooks and homework online have had their efforts to improve education stymied by a lack of internet access at many students’ homes. People who work from home find themselves dependent on local libraries or coffee shops for the kind of reliable Wi-Fi they can’t get at home.
The Federal Communications Commission reports nearly 30 percent of rural Washtenaw County residents, a little more than 33,000 people, don’t have access to fixed broadband internet — defined as an internet connection with a download speed of 25 Mbps and a 3 Mbps upload speed.
“Our kids send us things all the time, and we’re like, 'Well I can’t do that from home,'” Hammer said. “So we’ll have to go to the library and download this thing that you showed us.”
Bart and Mary Beth Hammer don’t want to give up their lakeside home and its gorgeous view, but they’re desperate for better internet service, often comparison shopping with their neighbors around the lake. Bart says they’ll gladly support the Lyndon Township proposal.
“We’ll definitely vote yes, and if it comes through, we’ll be paying whatever it costs to make it happen,” he said.
Lyndon Township Supervisor Marc Keezer says he’s personally approached several traditional internet service providers on behalf of the township, but none of them have shown any interest in building the infrastructure in the area on their own. It’s a question of population density and return on investment for for-profit internet providers. Rural townships provide a sparse customer base when compared to towns and cities.
“We don’t particularly want to build a network in our township. We would rather it be privatized and be like everybody else,” Keezer said. “But that’s not a reality for us here.”
The proposal is for a 20-year millage of 2.9 mills. A home with a taxable value of $100,000 would pay a little less than $300 annually in taxes to support the measure, plus a monthly fee for broadband internet service.
The money would be used to build a fiber-optic infrastructure for broadband internet access, plus a “head-end” to house equipment and electronics. Keezer says the total cost of the proposal is $7 million, including estimates for maintenance and repairs.
In theory, Lyndon Township residents will be paying at least a comparable rate to their current internet bill, with a potential for savings, and be receiving much better internet service.
It’s not the first case of a local government in Michigan taking action to provide reliable high-speed internet to its constituents. The city of Sebewaing, Michigan’s municipal utility company installed a fiber to the home network for residents a few years ago. Traverse City has considered moving in a similar direction.