A Towering Problem: Leelanau County residents want fast internet … but not the infrastructure

A campaign to expand and improve broadband access in Leelanau County is moving forward following a report that showed that some 64 percent of the residents surveyed were dissatisfied with their current internet service.

“Today technology plays a pivotal role in how businesses operate, how institutions provide services, and where consumers choose to live, work, and play,” the county’s Community Technology Assessment report stated. “The success of a community has become dependent on how broadly and deeply the community adopts technology resources, which includes access to reliable, high-speed networks, digital literacy of residents, and the use of online resources locally for business, government, and leisure.”

Internet is considered a utility and a critical necessity for schools, families, libraries, business owners and emergency personnel, according to the study, which surveyed some 1,600 Leelanau County residents.

Other findings show:

  • 84 percent of the county’s households have access to 25 megabits per second internet.
  • 1,960 households do not subscribe to internet service.
  • Nine percent of Leelanau residents aged 70 and older have internet service.
  • Four percent of households with active or retired military have internet service.
  • Four percent of the households without internet cite cost as the main reason.
  • Average monthly cost of internet service is $53.52.
  • County libraries have 28 computers for public use.
  • Groups with low rates of broadband usage include adults ages 18-34, adults with a high school diploma or less education, households with less than $35,000 annual income, and part-time residents.
  • Areas where internet service gaps exist include Cleveland, Leelanau, Centerville, Kasson and Solon townships.

After about two years of work, an action plan was developed following a comprehensive community assessment performed by the Leelanau Peninsula Broadband Team, with support from Connect Michigan, a non-profit working to help communities and federal agencies find solutions to their broadband and digital technology gaps.

Leelanau County scored 68.43 points out of 100 for overall broadband and technology readiness.

“Broadband is vital for so many businesses and residents,” said Leelanau Technology Committee Chair Patricia Soutas-Little, a county commissioner who was appointed to serve as the board’s representative on the Leelanau Peninsula Economic Foundation. “Leelanau County has such a diverse landscape, knowing current accessibility and residential needs, will help us plan for the future. High-speed internet and broadband capabilities can no longer be considered a ‘luxury.’”

Across the Leelanau Peninsula, the primary barrier preventing home broadband usage is a lack of infrastructure, according to the report.

One vital key to improving the less-than-ideal infrastructure is to upgrade the current communications towers throughout the county, according to Tom Stephenson, community technology advisor for Connect Michigan.

“Upgrading the existing towers, beefing them up and making some of them taller is one factor,” said Stephenson, who has been working closely with Leelanau officials and residents on the project.

Stephenson has worked with more than 50 communities since joining Connect Michigan in 2011. He recently completed the same type of  projects for Antrim and Charlevoix counties and is working with Benzie and Manistee counties on broadband evaluations. The projects are funded through the Michigan Public Services Commission and a series of grants, according to Stephenson.

One drawback to the communication tower upgrades is that county regulations and township zoning laws limit the heights and the number of towers in many areas.

“All 11 townships have varying rules and regulations on towers,” said Soutas-Little. “And they all have to be addressed individually. We also have to work with the road commission on this. This is Leelanau County: People want high speed internet, but they don’t want towers.”

The next step in the broadband upgrade process is meeting with planning and zoning officials throughout the county to come up with areas of agreement, Soutas-Little said. The technology committee is also working with three broadband providers on the project.

“We think there will be an opportunity for people to sign up in the next few months,” she said.

The rising cost of a home internet connection is the second most oft-cited barrier to adoption. Among all residents who have no internet access, 24.4 percent said that a home connection is too expensive.

“It’s the cost,” said Stephenson. “A lot of people just can’t afford $30 or more a month for internet.”

As of 2000, only half of U.S. residents were using the internet. Today nearly 90 percent are, even if only about 70 percent have access to broadband at home.

“The accessibility, quality, and affordability of broadband is now a key metric toward determining the economic capacity of regions,” said Matt McCauley, chief executive officer of Networks Northwest, which delivers programs and services to 10 counties of the northwest lower peninsula from its Traverse City offices. “Northwest lower Michigan’s potential to be prosperous and resilient is directly tied to our ability to build and support a robust broadband infrastructure.”

McCauley likened today’s lack of connectivity to what happened to communities that were bypassed by railroad connections in the early 20th century.

“Similar to how rail infrastructure greatly influenced rural communities in the beginning of the 20th century, I fear that those areas not connected by broadband will suffer and only those ‘on the line’ will have the potential to flourish,” he said. “And, also similar to our original rail system, broadband infrastructure in rural areas will require a role for both the public and private sector.”

To learn more, visit connectednation.org/michigan/ or the Leelanau Internet Futures Team page at facebook.com/LeelanauLIFT/.

Who doesn’t have broadband?

According to the Federal Communications Commission, there are about 381,000 households in Michigan that do not have access to fixed broadband internet, defined as a connection with download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 10 megabits per second. About 368,000 of those are in rural regions.

According to the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), for farmers to get maximum crop yields, many of the latest farming techniques require broadband connections for data collection and analysis performed both on the farm and in remote data centers. Those techniques allow farmers to be more efficient and achieve optimal yield. Farmers and other small, rural business owners are at an extreme disadvantage without access to broadband, according to the AFBF.