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Can rescue funds rescue U.P. broadband?

LANSING — Federal funds shared by Upper Peninsula communities could boost their access to broadband service.

While American Rescue Plan Act funds are distributed, Michigan State University officials offered local officials workshops to explain the rules and possibilities for distributing it.

“Many of the communities, especially in the U.P., are smaller, so they’re not getting a whole lot of money — maybe $50,000 to $100,000,” said Arnold Weinfeld, the associate director of MSU’s Institute for Public Policy and Social Research.

“(Regions) aren’t the only ones receiving funds. School districts are receiving funds. Nonprofits are receiving funds. It’s a great opportunity to collaborate on various items,” Weinfeld said.

Their tour spanned the U.P. , and included hybrid in-person and online sessions in Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette and Houghton and Hancock.

The American Rescue Plan funds can be used for water, sewer and broadband infrastructure and to make up for revenue loss. They can also be used for community and economic development like park maintenance and childcare and mental health programs. And they can provide hazard pay.

Improving broadband came up a lot, Weinfeld said.

“Broadband is to the 21st century what electric or telephone were to the 20th century,” he said.

An Eastern U.P. project to expand internet access that’s already underway could benefit significantly. It is a collaborative group of schools, townships, cities, villages and hopefully counties, health care facilities and higher education institutions.

“We’re really trying to make this inclusive of all the stakeholders in the area,” said Angie McArthur, the superintendent of the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District.

And it’s greatly needed.

When the pandemic closed eastern U.P. schools, 10% of students had no connectivity and 30% of students had less than adequate options, McArthur said.

Students without access don’t perform as well, and changing work models mean that people need to work from home, McArthur said. Access is also important for rural health care services that offer telemedicine.

The collaborative has asked schools to designate 3% of their Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding and townships, villages, cities and counties to designate 3% of their American Rescue Plan Act funds, McArthur said.

“We came together with an idea that if we work together we can impact the issue a lot more than if every township is trying to fix it themselves,” McArthur said.

All but one of the schools in the district has joined the effort and about 50% of the townships cities and villages have opted in, McArthur said. The goal is for every 9-1-1 address to have access to equitable and affordable connectivity by 2025, she said.

Service providers are expanding access through the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Additional federal funding could complement those projects, said Ryan Soucy, a senior economic and community development planner at the Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission.

The Federal Communications Commission held an auction for census block groups. Internet service providers bid on blocks where they would commit to expanding high speed internet access, Soucy said.

Local units of government could coordinate with the provider to expand access further, Soucy said.

One challenge: The lack of broadband makes it difficult to reach out to rural residents to see if they want service, and to discuss how it could be relevant, Soucy said.

While there’s uncertainty about expansion, it remains a priority for the region and its economic development, Soucy said. Local officials expect that providers will begin work in Delta County this year into next spring, and then to begin work in the Eastern U.P. census blocks, he said.

Expanding access is expensive. If a rural township wants access, it could cost $3 million to $6 million per township, said Tom Stephenson, the northern Michigan broadband solutions manager at Connected Nation Michigan.

There are other federal and state funding opportunities, including loans and grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

By building relationships with providers in the area, communities can expand their access to funding.

“You have to develop those relationships ahead of time,” Stephenson said. “Then go apply for that funding,” he said.

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