Livingston County should set a goal of having 100 percent internet access throughout the county by 2024, the slate of Democratic candidates for state and local offices says.
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has shown that high-speed internet connection is no longer a luxury and has become as essential to modern life as electricity, the candidates said in a news release Tuesday.
“In some parts of our county, children couldn’t continue their education during the recent school closures due to a lack of broadband. We risk having them fall behind because of that. Fowlerville schools had only limited internet education during the spring school closures due to the high number of its students without internet access.
“Adults were impacted, too. They often found it hard to work from home or apply for unemployment because of poor internet service. We can’t wait any longer for the private sector to make this happen because they say they can’t make enough money in low population areas to justify the investment,” said Bob Sexton, a former Fowlerville teacher. He is now a candidate for county commissioner in District 1, which includes the city of Brighton and most of Brighton Township.
Internet access has become necessary for tele-medicine appointments, mental health counseling sessions, court hearings, working from home, seeking jobless benefits, and shopping, they said. Even once the pandemic ends, high-speed internet access will remain essential for job searches, running a farm or other business, communicating with family and friends, and taking college classes on line.
Lack of high-speed internet is also a property value issue for homeowners, townships, and the county. Homes with poor internet or no internet are harder to sell and are worth less than homes with high-speed internet – as much as 7.1 percent less, according to a study by the University of Colorado and Carnegie Mellon University.
New uses for the internet emerge all the time and without strong service, people in underserved areas of the county will be left even further behind.
The Democratic candidates said the county commission should take a leadership role in expanding access to broadband internet.
Funding is available if the county and township governments can work together and make rural broadband access a priority, the candidates said. The recently passed federal CARES Act added $100 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Broadband Program and $25 million for distance learning and telemedicine for rural residents.
The county’s current master plan mentions improving internet access but it focused primarily on encouraging private internet service providers to expand slower-speed DSL access over telephone lines with the help of money from the Connect America Fund through the Federal Communications Commission. The slower internet speeds do not support many of the most useful internet applications now available.
The Democrats said Livingston County should:
--Establish a broadband equity subcommittee of the Livingston County Commission charged with improving broadband access in the county. The subcommittee could be supplemented with educators, business representatives, township officials, and consumers.
--Conduct a survey of Livingston County households, in conjunction with all 16 townships and the cities of Howell and Brighton, to document what services are available now and how satisfied residents are with their level of service. Although the FCC has data on internet access, other communities -- such as Washtenaw County -- have found the data underestimates gaps in internet service, which results in some counties being wrongly classified as ineligible for assistance. The subcommittee could reach out to Washtenaw County to learn more about how its survey was conducted.
--Investigate the availability of grants and loans to pay for expanding rural broadband access since in rural areas private investment alone has not been enough to provide the service.
Creation of non-profit cooperatives should also be considered as a way of providing service.
--Push for passage of state legislation to allow the use of special assessment districts for improving broadband access, a process many areas of Livingston County have used to pay for road improvements. House Bill 5673, sponsored by Rep. Donna Lasinski, has been introduced in the Michigan House but the Republican House has taken no action on it and neither of Livingston County’s two Republican lawmakers is a co-sponsor.
The rural broadband push is supported by the Democratic State House candidates Donnie Bettes in the 42nd District and Adam Smiddy in the 47th District, as well as all nine Democratic candidates for county commission, and the candidates for township offices in 13 townships.