Berrien County launching survey to investigate broadband connectivity

BERRIEN COUNTY – Throughout the past 10 months, internet access has played an even larger role in how residents conduct their day to day lives.

To help meet the need, the Berrien County Board of Commissioners has been working with Merit Network to launch a survey throughout the county. Commissioners said the survey will help them gain a better understanding of the reality of which areas are unserved or underserved by broadband internet speeds.

The initial surveys and informational postcards will go out in early to mid-February, and the survey will remain open until March 26 for residents to give their feedback.

Broadband speeds defined by the Federal Communications Commission were set at having a 25 megabits per second download speed, with a 3 megabits per second upload speed in 2015. Today, that speed is at the top of the minimum range required to do tasks like student work or telecommuting, according to the FCC’s broadband speed guide.

County Commission for District 8 Teri Sue Freehling said she ran her own internet speed tests on her internet at home. She said her provider said she has broadband, but she averages about a 6 mbps download and struggles to get 1 mbps upload. The speeds make it difficult to get certain types of work done or media to play.

“The purpose is having a granular understanding of those areas in Berrien County that are unserved or underserved,” Freehling said.

While the FCC does have a broadband map of the U.S., Freehling said it has its flaws.

“Those maps are self-reported by the [broadband] providers, and they’re based on Census [blocks] instead of true household service,” Freehling said.

According to the FCC’s website, “providers may not offer service to every home in every block in which they report service. The calculations used to create the graphs treat ever location as having service, and may therefore over-estimate broadband coverage, particularly in area with large census blocks.”

The Board of Commissioners signed a resolution on April 4, 2019, where board members acknowledged the importance of internet access to Berrien County residents.

“Access to the internet and e-connectivity is a crucial part of the Berrien County mission to provide leadership, cooperation with all units of government, sound fiscal management, and planning thereby promoting public safety, health, well-being and prosperity in order to improve the quality of life for present and future generations,” said the order, submitted by the Berrien County Finance Committee.

Freehling sees this as a starting place that laid the groundwork for the most recent work to get a better picture of who does and does not actually have access to broadband internet speeds. She was also one of the commissioners to begin researching the issue because the issue impacts the agricultural community, a community she is a part of.

“In the agricultural community, there is a need for broadband and connectivity because of precision ag[ricultural] products,” Freehling said.

Precision ‘ag’ products are used to track how much fertilizer is being used or how many seeds are in the planter in real time.

“While it is my interest, I realize there is a much broader need for the discussion whether that is for business and learning,” Freehling said. “It touches all aspects of life. It’s a utility, in essence, because we need it to do business and have that quality of life we have come to expect.”
The Board of Commissioners formed the Berrien County Broadband Task Force, which teamed up with Merit Network. Merit has been a provider for connectivity infrastructure and support for educational institutions across the state of Michigan.

“They have been around for quite some time in regards to help make those connections and bridge the digital divide throughout the state,” Freehling said. “They have been strong advocates to help improve those areas that are underserved and unserved throughout the state.”

Merit Network has completed the survey process in Washtenaw County, which includes Ann Arbor, Michigan. After completing the survey process, the Washtenaw County’s Broadband Task Force has moved into the pre-engineering phase, taking the next step to get residents online.

During the Jan. 14 Board of Commissioners meeting, Charlotte Bewersdorff, vice president of community engagement for Merit Network gave a presentation on the survey to the commissioners. She outlined a target of March 29 through April 29 as a period for Merit to do its analysis of the survey results.

“Essentially, that will lead us to a community presentation of our findings,” Bewersdorff said. The report will help the Berrien County Broadband Task Force to determine their next steps in addressing any underserved or unserved areas in the county.

Information about the survey may be found at Merit.edu/berrien.

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