Cass County works to expand broadband access

CASSOPOLIS — This week, Cass County took the first step toward expanding broadband internet access to its residents.

Thursday, the Cass County Board of Commissioners voted to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission to facilitate collecting and mapping data related to the speed and coverage of broadband internet in the county.

“This is a first step,” said Commissioner Robert Benjamin. “Once this is completed, there will still be more research to be done and grants to be sought.”

Much of Cass County’s rural areas lack reliable access to broadband internet. According to census data, 24 percent of Cass County households from 2014 to 2018 did not have a broadband internet subscription.

According to a memo sent to commissioners, this lack of broadband internet access is affecting the economy, education and the ability for the government to interact with its constituents.

“It has become increasingly apparent that where high-speed internet was once an option for households, it is fast becoming a necessity,” the memo reads. “However, the ability of the county to understand and respond to this need is directly related to credible, defensible data to document where the need exists.”

According to the memorandum, Cass County will provide SWMPC with $6,000 as funding to support data collection, oversee the completion of the project by attending regular progress meetings, be a partner in the marketing promotion and support of the data collection effort through a survey to Cass County households and provide endorsement of the data collection effort through formal documentation.

In turn, the SWMPC will coordinate with a third-party consultant to insure the marketing and promotion of the data collection, coordinate with a third-party consultant to generate up to 20 maps as visualization tools to reflect the results of the data collection and ensure Cass County will have ownership of the data and visualization mapping tools.

The mapping is set to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2021.

The motion to approve the mapping was approved unanimously by commissioners Thursday evening.

Commissioner Benjamin, who serves district five, was vocally in support of the motion. In his district, Milton Township voted in December 2018 to award $75,000 to Midwest Energy and Communications to install five miles of fiber, resulting in around 80 homes receiving high-speed internet access.

Benjamin said Milton Township’s prioritizing of broadband access has been successful. He hopes Thursday’s motion will eventually lead Cass County to make internet access for its residents a top priority.

“This is something that I am very excited about, that the county is looking at doing investments in broadband,” Benjamin said. “This is just the first step. This will start giving the image of where Cass County is for broadband, and we need to be prepared for investments, along with the townships, along with the state and federal governments. It’s going to require all four levels to really get broadband out to every home.”

Also speaking in support of the motion was Commissioner Skip Dyes, serving district three.

“I agree with Commissioner Benjamin,” he said. “We need to move forward on this project. … Broadband is essential.”

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