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Building a Network to Build a Network in Southwest Michigan - Episode 449 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
We don’t often get to spend a whole episode diving into the earliest work that communities do to set the foundation for progress in expanding high-quality broadband access down the road, but that’s what we’re talking about today.
This week on the podcast Christopher is joined by Pierrette Renée Dagg, Director of Marketing and Communications for the MERIT Network, and John Egelhaaf, Executive Director of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission.
The two share the history of efforts in Berrien County, Michigan, and how a group of residents and local officials began pursuing better Internet connectivity a few years ago. Pierrette and John share the work that’s gone into the formation of a broadband task force, the identification of avenues and goals, and collaboration with hundreds of community partners along the way.
The story they tell is one of the power of partnerships and outreach groups (like anchor institutions andlibraries, senior centers, HOAs, fraternal orgs, and PTA groups) in contributing to a growing momentum.
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Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: They don't know how to get from A to Z. And really, you don't have to. Those are things that are going to reveal themselves along the way.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 449 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. We don't often get to spend a whole episode diving into the earliest work that communities do to set the foundation for progress in expanding high quality broadband access down the road, but that's what we're talking about today. Christopher is joined by Pierrette Renée Dagg, director of marketing and communications for the Merit Network, and John Egelhaaf, executive director of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission. The two share the history of efforts in Berrien County, Michigan, in how a group of residents and local officials began pursuing better Internet connectivity a few years ago. Pierrette and John shared the work that's gone into the formation of Broadband Task Force, the identification of avenues and goals, and collaborations with hundreds of community partners along the way. The story they tell is one of the power of partnerships and outreach groups like anchor institutions, libraries, senior centers, HOAs, fraternal organizations, and PTA groups in contributing to a growing momentum.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: How pizza boxes can play a role in building support, and why Chris thinks early broadband planners are like squirrels. Now here's Christopher talking with Pierrette and John.
Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Today. I'm speaking with some folks from Michigan, and specifically from Southwest Michigan, John Egelhaaf, who is the executive director of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, and who is assisting with the Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force. Welcome to the show, John.
John Egelhaaf: Thank you, Christopher.
Christopher Mitchell: And we also have a repeat guest, Pierrette Renée Dagg, who is the director of marketing and communications at Merit Network in Michigan. Although I think you might not be in Michigan, are you in Michigan?
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Merit Network is in Michigan, and we're owned and governed by 12 of the public universities in Michigan. I'm also a PhD student at the University of Toledo. Currently right now today, I'm sitting across state lines in Ohio.
Christopher Mitchell: All right, well, I'm sure that they'll count that against you, but we won't. We don't mind so much. So this is an episode that is brought on because, in a conversation with you, Pierrette, you noted the really impressive work that the Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force has done in terms of getting things started, and really having good community collaboration, and building a foundation. And I've heard from some listeners they're very interested in these early steps, what can be done when you have a few people meeting around a, at a coffee shop outdoors maybe, and you're trying to figure out, what do we actually do to turn this into something where we can really imagine it moving the needle with a broadband investment from someone to improve access? So John, let me ask you to just start briefly. Paint us a little bit of a picture of how this got started in your neck of the woods.
John Egelhaaf: It's a little bit interesting to actually have to think of it as a story, because I'm still in the middle of the story. So it's not like it has a [inaudible 00:03:38] being on easy beginning, and a middle and an end yet. So that's the setup, but we at the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission have been in the broadband understanding business for a little while, but the world wasn't quite ready for us to do that, like our world, our part of the world wasn't quite ready. So we had built something, and then we had to sort of put it on pause, put it on moth balls for a little while. And then it seemed like momentum started picking up again. And we're a regional organization, and we work in a lot of different areas. So we've always got our ear to the tracks, if you will. And that vibration, we picked up that vibration again, and started running with it. So it's not a lot of substance, but that's sort of a loose beginning.
Christopher Mitchell: Did that vibration come from COVID-19, and people suddenly prioritizing this in ways that they had not before?
John Egelhaaf: No, it was well in advance of that, as a matter of fact. I think part of it was that I was reading the tea leaves from other organizations around our perimeter, and maybe statewide and federal, and just recognizing that the world was starting to change. Federal funding was starting to become possible, state funding was starting to coalesce a bit. So I knew that we had to continue to build our own collective intelligence at our organization, and I was in the process of doing that.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, Pierrette, we've talked about the Michigan Moonshot, and just today, I spent an hour talking about how wonderful it is. We've talked about all the different things, and all the resources you've collected. Give us a sense of how what's happening in Southwest Michigan kind of fits in.` Is that what a lot of communities are doing across the state right now?
Pierrette Renée Dagg: We actually have a lot of communities who are in every, every portion of their community network journey, most of the community. So there are a lot of people who are listening to this outside of Michigan. as I anticipate most communities are going to be in the early planning stages. And those can fall anywhere from just some interest in citizens right now, trying to decide if they're ready to begin the journey, maybe there are some conversations being held with local elected officials. Maybe people are seeking out like-minded broadband champions at community anchor institutions. Some are seeking out existing efforts, building their team, all the way to doing things like establishing goals, or once someone is, as far as perhaps finding some stakeholders who are on onboard, whether it's planning commissions or co-ops or community anchors, the next step is really to start looking at assessing the community. So one of the big things that the Michigan Moonshot is working on right now, is we're working with a number of communities in data collection.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: And as I'm sure most everybody on this podcast is aware, is it safe to assume that everybody's kind of on the same page about that, the challenges with relying on carrier and FTC data, Chris?
Christopher Mitchell: Yes. If not, they've wandered in, and they're about to wander out.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: So now that we really have an understanding of why that locally sourced connectivity data is needed, what we've been focusing on very heavily is an in-community survey that goes very deep to measure both the served and unserved populations in different communities in statewide Michigan through a number of methods where we've got companion surveys for those who are unserved, whether it is through potential use of text message, 1-800 numbers, lightweight surveys that can be accessed via cellular plans, and we've got an online survey that can be used for those who do have fixed Internet in their home. And it measures things like demographic information, access use, sentiment data, and that's coupled along with a speed test. And what that information is allowing a lot of our communities who are in that stage of planning to do is to really assess and understand who in their community is connected, the speed at which they're connected.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: It really helps, and I'll talk a lot about this, because this is something that I really feel Berrien County in the Southwest Michigan Regional Planning Commission has done in a way that we've not seen ever before, using this as a method to really engage communities holistically, and really, to get everybody together on board. And then we're using that data that comes back, and the sediment analysis to create GIS visualizations, mapping, things like that, which really are assisting with municipalities and planning commissions and groups and broadband grant applications in the next steps of broadband planning, and the next steps of feasibility.
Christopher Mitchell: So you're doing a lot of things.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Yes sir.
Christopher Mitchell: This is where I should have noted that Merit Network is not your typical kind of network that people are familiar with. Merit serves all the schools and libraries in higher education. It seems you take higher education seriously for how well you've done doing the literature review of all of the best resources in the country, in the Michigan Moonshot project. So a lot of the things you've discussed, you've open-sourced, and people can learn about by just doing a quick Internet search for Michigan Moonshot and checking it out. So these resources that we're going to be talking about some more here are available to others. If you're in Michigan, you should just reach out directly to Merit about, about accessing all the great resources that they've made available. As we're coming back, John, to Berrien County, you mentioned that this is starting to bubble up now, and what are your first steps in as you're noticing that, and how do you then get tied into what Merit is doing?
John Egelhaaf: I wasn't specific about the way I was collecting information. So I just grabbed it from wherever I could get it, and tried to just settle myself to understand that it's okay, that it these dots don't form a line yet, that at some point, what I'm learning is going to start to shuffle and sort out and make sense. So I was grabbing information from anywhere I could get it. Academics, people who were in the field actually installing infrastructure, just a whole range of folks. Michigan State University had, someone called him Innovation Fellow, who I kind of latched on to, and he sort of latched on to us, and we learned a lot together about cool broadband stuff. So he was a great pathway for me. So you never knew where it was going to come from.
John Egelhaaf: But one of the things that was really crucial, as I'm doing that, Berrien County board of commissioners are building their goals for, I think it was 2020. At some point, there were some activist commissioners on that board that said broadband provision has got to be one of our goals. And I would say that the county administration in Berrien kind of recognized what a lot of folks recognized in leadership positions, that this is a extremely heavy lift. And the sense that they have is that we don't have the people in place, we don't have the systems in place. And moreover, we really don't know what we're supposed to do. So that was kind of what resulted, was he had a hunch that the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission had already built up a sort of storehouse of useful information that maybe already had some inertia going.
John Egelhaaf: So at that point, we had a bunch of critical pieces that suddenly snapped together. We had a lot of information and intel that we gathered, we had leadership that was ready to go. All I had to do was sort of sit down with them and establish that. Let's meet in a periodic way. Between our monthly meetings, I would gather a bunch of stuff, we'd talk about that stuff, and then we'd meet again, and we'd start to plan a course. Over time. It became apparent to us that we were starting on a journey, and some of that material started making sense.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, so far, we've kind of been introduced to two stakeholders, the county, and the planning commission. Now, John, I'm curious about other stakeholders. So far, the story involves the county and the planning commission. How did others start to get integrated into that?
John Egelhaaf: We started adding county commissioners. So in the beginning, it was just two, and then a third one joined. And then the county administrator, there was some turnover in county administration, and the new county administrator joined. So there was, on an individual level, that there was starting to be a sort of broader representation from leadership. But at the same time, we started to recognize that we're not alone on this issue, that there's a lot of organizations around the region that also were prioritizing broadband as a thing, recognizing the deficit, knowing that something had to be done about it. And one of the things about, this is a little plug for regional planning organizations like ours, we are facilitators and collaborators. That's what we do all the time. And so our linkage to these other organizations is sort of part of what we're already doing anyway. So to recognize how those assets tend to re-sort across a broadband issue is not that out of the ordinary for us. So we're starting to see this, and we're recognizing, okay, we got to move into our collaborative mode and start gathering them up, and letting them know what's up.
Christopher Mitchell: Pierrette, I'm assuming that you popped this up?
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Oh yeah, no. John said a couple of things that I think are so critical for any community, or any broadband champion that's considering starting this journey, or even just that the initial thoughts about it going all the way back to when John started talking about, there were a lot of people in various positions at the county. And a lot of times, they're not alone. John, you're pulling information from every source you can get. There really isn't any one-size-fits-all approach to this, and there's not really going to be any singular solution. And a lot of times, I know that people who are planning this journey are trying to build their broadband vision, they don't know how to get from a to Z, and really, you don't have to. Those are things that are going to reveal themselves along the way, whether it's the financing, the models, the engineering, the architecture, the ownership. At any of those things, they're all really step-by-step.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: So I think that that can be a challenge. I think also sometimes, the capabilities of any singular organization, or the knowledge, or even the ability or the manpower can a lot of times be out of the realm of capability of a single organization, which is why what's happening right now with a lot of our Michigan communities is so amazing, because we're seeing all over, and many of these communities that are working with Merit and the Michigan Moonshot, or are working together, they're forming these partnerships, whether it's private organizations, municipalities and task forces, and everyone is kind of banding together much like in Berrien County, the Broadband Task Force and the Regional Planning Commissions case, or they're all really working together to make something like this work. For us, another really innovative thing that we've seen both in Washtenaw County, Michigan and in Berrien now, is once you really do start to want to feel out residents' sentiment data, to understand what do our residents need, what do our residents want, perhaps what might they even use these tools for?
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Where are we lacking? How do we feel if there are providers? How do we feel about the providers that exist? Or where do we feel like maybe we're unsatisfied? Any of that kind of information. If you have a ton of money to spend on outreach to get people to take your survey, send their opinions to let them know about the tests, that's great. And any bit of information can be useful. So in some cases, when money's been available, we've seen communities do things like radio advertisements, flyers on pizza boxes. We've seen pre-roll commercials in movie theaters pre-COVID, television commercials, direct mailers, you name it, we've seen it. But in a lot of cases, and I feel like this might be true for many of the communities that are listening, especially those who are primarily unserved, either population density prevents that, the pandemic right now is certainly an issue, and also just socioeconomics.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: If it were potentially a more affluent community, maybe some of these issues wouldn't exist anyway. So one thing that we're seeing, and John really, Southwest Michigan Planning Commission, and the Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force and their board of commissioners, what they've really done, I feel like as an exemplar, is really build this engagement circle. So the citizen and the community, they really had a lot of needs, and that grows discussions with those municipal entities. And then those municipal entities in turn started working with the Michigan Moonshot. And instead of doing external advertisement, what we were able to do is assemble a growing list. As John said, our hero's journey is still in progress. We haven't returned home with our magic elixir. And so what we've done is we've identified through the task force more than 200 community anchors, tuitions, outreach partners, and interested citizens.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: And these include schools, HOAs, libraries, fraternal organizations, and private entities. And even in some cases, some private corporations to really help us spread the word to the Michigan Moonshot, with them developed a community outreach toolkit. And that included things like social media posts and images, sample emails that they could send to their members or constituents, or people that interface with their organizations. We developed some language that they might use in newsletters, existing channels, not websites. And we held a one-to-many style informational webinar for all of these community partners to help them all spread the same message about sharing information about the initiative, about the survey, and about the speed test. So it's really built this cycle that John says, it really does bring everybody together, and it takes everybody within a community because the task is so large. And in most cases, it's too much for any one group. So in this way, the community engagement broadband project builds this planning ecosystem that brings everybody even closer together around this shared goal.
Christopher Mitchell: In some ways, what I think you're describing is that people need to be arrogant squirrels in the sense that you're a squirrel, and that you're going out, and you're collecting all these bits of information that you may not know exactly what you're going to do with, and you're trying to get this all together. And the arrogance is not being too intimidated by all of the things that have to come, that you don't know where the money is, you don't know what the technology is going to be. You're just trying to get all these different pieces that will later form this image. And then with what Pierrette was just saying, you've developed this remarkable tool to be able to share that information, and to make sure that not just are you telling people that this is a fact, and broadband's an important thing, but here's something that you can do in your company. Here's something you can do at your PTA, spreading the survey and things like that. So John, tell us what you wanted to add on.
John Egelhaaf: Yeah, I think it's really critical to reduce it down to a set of things, actions that anybody can take. And in the end, the survey itself is really simple. So it's not onerous. So all of that has been kind of factored in all along. But I guess the thing I wanted to add was two things that are sort of a little nuance of what's already been said. One is that I was talking about certain synergies with other actions that were happening and starting to click together. There is a subregion within Berrien County called Harbor Country. And in Harbor Country, there's a foundation. Harbor Country is part of that foundations that are geographic scope. And they sat down with leaders in Harbor Country to say, "Let's determine what our community's number one, two, and maybe three priority is," and they did that work. They funded it. They got a lot of citizen response. And lo and behold, you've got broadband showing up as one of the top two priorities. So oh, antenna goes up, that's an issue there.
John Egelhaaf: The other thing I wanted to mention is that planning organizations like mine, Michigan is completely covered by 14 planning organizations, just similarly oriented to mine. Each one of them responds uniquely to the challenges in their region, but they're all staffed with professional planners, and they're used to this certain kind of approach to work. We're not alone. Minnesota has plenty of regional planning organizations where nonprofits, in our case, we were created by the counties we serve, but also enabled by the state of Michigan. So that's kind of a common thing. So I want people out there to know that if you're looking for a partner, it is likely that you would find one in your regional planning organization that serves you. The folks there are used to being very process-driven. So I know I've had to default to that, and really need a process if I'm going to understand what we're doing, where we're going, why we're doing it, how it rolls out over time. So that's one of the things that planning organizations, and planners in general, are really good at.
Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm curious, how did this start in terms of building this, the coalition beyond the county and the planning board? If I was to stereotype for a second, I don't feel like planners are necessarily the ones who are going to be out just spreading the word, evangelizing. I think of planners as tending to be a little bit more introspective and quiet. So how did you spread the word about all this?
John Egelhaaf: Well, in truth, planners are this interesting juxtaposition of both of the things you talked about, because nobody goes to planning school of any reputation, and comes out thinking that if they sit at their desk and build a plan, everything's going to work out. Any decent plan begins with community buy-in on the front end that we're planning, and we're participating in it, participation in the middle, and then final buy-in in the end. So it's human beings engaged in the very planning that will impact their communities when the planner is gone and the plan is left. So that is really instrumental. So we were already used to engaging. No decent process exists without engagement at its cornerstone. But in this case, it was kind of like, then COVID hits. We haven't talked about COVID yet, but suddenly. Here we are in pandemic mode, and everybody knows this one, their students are only so successful at engaging and continuing to learn.
John Egelhaaf: And the schools are very concerned about this, and they're trying to figure out what to do about it. And in the meantime, we recognize that there is synergy here. It's kind of a two phase thing. They've got an immediate need, and we're talking about a need that's a little farther down the road, but nevertheless, it still snaps together as a common interest. So we started reaching out to our regional school district. They call it recess here, but I suppose many states probably do this, where they collect school districts into a larger regional district thing. So they have a technology expert there, and they were more than willing to be the sort of fulcrum for reaching all of the schools. So we reach out to the technology expert, and they push everything that we need that students and their parents and the teachers and everything, everything we need them to know that pushing it out.
John Egelhaaf: So it's some of those really critical ... We kind of tiered our community engagement that way, where if we touch one organization, how can we push that message out from that one sort of linchpin, and out to a lot of people that are in their kind of sphere? So that was our top two organizations. If we could hit a lot of people by just hitting that one organization, that put them at the top tier, and then we sort of tiered the others too. There's all sorts of different ways to do that. But that's kind of what we were doing.
Christopher Mitchell: The other point I wanted to bring out from Pierrette's wonderful description of the survey and the getting that information out, the pizza boxes, being able to do it with cell phones and text messaging, I suspect you didn't have someone giving you a million dollars for an advertising campaign to put it on local television stations and things like that. How did you go about getting the [inaudible 00:27:54] for the survey? Is it purely the mechanism that you just described, or were there other pieces of that to make sure people did the survey?
John Egelhaaf: So it sort of splinters into two answers. One is about the funding side, and the other is about maximizing your opportunities, and recognizing, prioritizing maximum bang for the buck, and then everything else. And Berrien was willing to put some skin in the game. So we were fortunate. We kind of figured out initially, we wanted to address this as a regional three county endeavor. It was just happened that Berrien was more kind of ready to go. We have interest from one of our other counties, and we're going to pursue that, and they're also brought in financially, but we're not talking about a tremendous amount of money here. So on that side of things, the county commissioners determined it was a priority, and were willing to put some of their general fund money behind. So that was critical. And Pierrette can talk about some of the other details of funding as well.
John Egelhaaf: But the other side of it is really, how do we parlay this engagement with all of these community organizations, and use things like social media that don't really cost very much, determine that our survey and the speed test will be on the other side of it, a hyperlink instead of a hard copy mailing that goes to their address, because that is a lot more expensive than pushing out digital information. So we erred on the side of seeing how much we can accomplish with the digital push, and then putting in our back pocket the possibility that if we don't see the response we want, we can push over to something more paper-centric. We did sort of hedge a little bit, and decided that there were sectors of our community that we knew were underserved, we knew that were challenged in sort of historic generational kind of ways. And we needed to reach them with a postcard or something physical. So we went about the challenge of determining with GIS, kind of where those populations are, what zip codes those are, and then push postcards with all of the essential information on that postcard.
Christopher Mitchell: And before I ask Pierrette to add to that, what was the amount that Berrien County was able to commit?
John Egelhaaf: Don't remember exactly, but we're right around 30,000.
Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Yeah, an amount that will lead to well in excess of that amount of benefits, no doubt.
John Egelhaaf: Oh my goodness, yes.
Christopher Mitchell: So Pierrette, is there anything that you want to add on to that as we're headed to the end of the episode, so I want to make sure we hit any other key points.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: What I would like to add onto that again, is whether that number is an anchor number, high or low. Like I said, there are innumerable ways that we can use this bottom-up grassroots approach to build this community planning ecosystem through these community anchor partners. And whether that's through press releases, social media campaigns, PTAs and PTOs, libraries, HOAs, whether it is through mailing, whether it is through radio interviews, we were very lucky in that we got a lot of press coverage from a number of press releases and interviews that we had done that also helped spread the word, and Meredith's also concurrently working on gathering data in a statewide fashion, which is a little bit lighter than these deep in community data collections that we're doing with. For example, Berrien in what we didn't watch in our county, and just general awareness about that assisted as well.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: So I think it depends upon the community, it depends on the partners and the champions that your task forces and planning groups can assemble and put together, it depends on the interest and commitment of every single citizen. It's also a top-down issue, so it really is something we're going to be successful and stronger together in. So we need individual citizens to be very engaged and very committed to spreading the word, and encouraging their neighbors, and talking to their teachers and their postman, and the people that are delivering their grocery and all the things. And then we also need same messages being echoed from our county commissioners, from our mayors, from our municipalities, and everybody in between. And by doing that, we're able to share this burden and carry this load together in a way that's going to be the most effective, and make the most sense for each community.
Christopher Mitchell: That's terrific, and I 100 percent endorse that in terms of the need to get people engaged. John, did you have any other comments you wanted to include?
John Egelhaaf: I just think, I want to put one final kind of stamp on the need for the anchor institutions, and to really think through what those are. I talked about the educators, but also, healthcare is an interesting one. So you're reaching a lot of people. The key is we've reached this moment where nobody's sweeping this under the rug anymore. And so you can grab those anchor institutions in a way that you really couldn't before. You sounded a little too wonky and a little, who cares, broadband, whatever, people have it, it's fine. But now, there's no denying it, and our health care network and system is completely bought in as well, and more often than not, they find their own momentum on this, and then we find them. So I would encourage those out there listening to do the same, to build your list of what those anchor institutions are, what's your wishlist, and then just start tapping those, building momentum.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Exactly. In some regions, in some areas, it could be tribal-related. In some areas, it might be agriculture and smart ag. So it's exactly what John is saying. Your community needs are going to determine who those outreach partners really are going to be.
Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Thank you both. This is going to be really useful for folks that are trying to figure this out, trying to get to where you are, and I'm looking forward to where your adventure takes you next. Certainly hope it is a less challenging than Odysseus for you to return home, but it is exciting to see the progress you've made. So thank you both.
John Egelhaaf: You're quite welcome.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Excellent. Thanks Chris. Thanks John.
Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Pierrette Renée Dagg and John Egelhaaf. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at email@example.com with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 449 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.