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washtenaw county mi
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As communities across the country are working to bring more affordable, reliable Internet access to their residents, one county in Michigan is gearing up to reach every household within its bounds. On Wednesday night, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners held a Ways and Means meeting and unanimously approved a resolution obligating state funding, including American Rescue Plan funds, to several initiatives, with $14.6 million dollars being allocated to broadband infrastructure.
Although some communities in the county have made progress in recent years in improving connectivity, thousands of households have been left with broadband at basic speeds. While many are slated to receive service via the recent wins by Mercury Broadband (a Kansas-based ISP, focused on connecting rural America) and Midwest Energy and Communications (MEC, a Michigan electric cooperative) from the 2020 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, there are still 17 townships scattered across the county with more than 3,000 households that remained unserved.
Back in May, the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) to plug the remaining holes, with the Task Force signalling its general happiness with the responses in the recent meeting. The allocation on Wednesday, if it receives final approval in the near future, will be used to fund the project proposals the Broadband Task Force is currently negotiating with four ISPs: Midwest Energy and Communications, Washtenaw Fiber, Comcast and Charter-Spectrum.
This vote brings the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force one step closer to its goal of countywide broadband equity. Its $14.6 million dollar plan will either be approved or vetoed by the County Board of Commissioners on Sept. 15.
The Journey to Countywide Broadband Equity
The Washtenaw County Broadband Subcommittee was formed in 2017 to assess the county’s broadband coverage and make recommendations about how to achieve “countywide broadband equity” by 2022.
Washtenaw County (pop. 367,600), home of B-24 bomber, a once booming automotive industry and the University of Michigan, is making strides toward bringing the region back into an economic powerhouse, running 20 miles of fiber from downtown Ann Arbor through Ypsilanti Township, connecting the business and commercial corridors of four different townships ultimately ending at the American Center for Mobility.
Ann Arbor SPARK, a non-profit economic development organization, received $2.4 million in federal funding from the CARES Act in July to start the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Corridor Fiber Optic Backbone project. Ann Arbor Spark contributed $200,000 to the $600,000 local match requirement needed to obtain the funds, while Washtenaw County contributed $112,000, the City of Ann Arbor contributed $138,000, and Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti Local Development Finance Authority contributed $150,000.
Shaking off the Rust
Ypsilanti, Michigan (pop. 20,800) led the country in cutting edge automotive manufacturing for decades. Just 5 miles east of Ypsilanti, lay the Willow Run manufacturing complex and airport where Henry Ford produced B-24 heavy bombers for World War II, spurring a flood of workers in the region and ultimately leading to a housing shortage. The influx overwhelmed the market, forcing the Federal Public Housing Administration to step in and build dormitories for the workers. When the war ended, automotive manufacturers shuffled in and out of the complex, continuing to create jobs.
A new project borne out out of the Michigan Moonshot Initiative promises to help thousands of families and students without home Internet access get online. Led by the Merit Network, a coalition of partners (including Toyota, Cisco, the Detroit Public Library, the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, and county school districts) is installing Wi-Fi hardware at 50 sites around the southeastern part of the state to bring broadband access to thousands. Nine locations are up and running, with more soon to follow.
The effort is taking place in the cities of Detroit, Inkster, Flint, as well as Washtenaw County. Toyota and Cisco are providing funds and hardware, and the project takes advantage of the Merit Network’s extensive fiber backbone running throughout the state (4,000 miles in total). Wayne State University is also participating, and inviting students and faculty and staff to participate in a broadband survey. Funds are being dispersed in the form of grants which will go to community organizations to boost existing Wi-Fi networks at schools and other anchor institutions across participating areas.