OLIVE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — In the digital age, many Michigan residents still don’t have access to reliable, high-speed internet. But a new project could fill the need for thousands in Ottawa County.
“Broadband is essential,” Ottawa County Commissioner Rebekah Curran told News 8 in an interview on Sunday afternoon. “It’s no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity.”
Now, the county is a step closer to covering nearly 10,000 households. This week, the board of commissioners unanimously approved a partnership with the provider 123NET to move a $27 million project forward.
Curran helped make it happen.
“I love it when we have unanimous votes,” she said. “They’re my favorite votes. And it really shows the intent of what we want to do in the community and where the future is going.”
In the vote, the board agreed to send a letter of intent to the state that it would apply for the ROBIN grant, a $250 million state program using American Rescue Plan Act funds dedicated to expanding high-speed internet to underserved counties.
A huge chunk of the $27 million project would come from the ROBIN grant, if the county receives it. The county would put forward up to $7.5 million in ARPA funds, while 123Net would contribute $3.5 million.
Curran said 123Net would also invest an additional $3.5 million to create a “network hub in the county.” That would include a data center fiber operations facility and a retail storefront for customer interaction, she said.
The money that each group is contributing could still change. The board agreeing to submit the letter of intent on Tuesday is just the first step in the ROBIN grant application process, Curran explained. Soon, the board will have to approve their official proposal to the state, and that’s when the financial contributions will be finalized.
Curran emphasized the project could attract more people to the county and even lead to more broadband development.
“Instead of a private network, our plan is going to be an open network where anybody can come in,” Curran said. “Another ISP provider can come in and piggyback off of what we’ve already done with 123NET. It really creates more competition.”
A survey conducted by the county in 2021 found more than 10% of households there don’t have access to high-speed internet, with many reporting service is unreliable or too expensive.
“The communities that are large, populous areas will receive that fiber services,” Curran said. “But in the more rural areas, the ISP providers aren’t inclined to run fiber for five homes. So it leaves a lot of our county underserved. This is going to hopefully bridge that gap between the underserved.”
“I hope that this just opens doors of opportunity for learning and growth for our farmers to utilize technology and leverage those advances,” she added.
The board has been divided on several votes this year, but the decision to go after this grant was unanimous. Curran said it shows both sides can work together.
“I love when we agree on things, and there’s so much to agree on,” she said. “There’s so many things that we can all agree on. I think when we focus on what brings us together versus what divides us, we’re all stronger.”
The state is expected to announce in June which counties will get the critical ROBIN grant. If that happens, work could get underway on building the networks soon after.
“Fingers crossed that that ROBIN grant comes through for the folks here,” Curran said.