Berrien County commissioners discuss broadband service expansion

Published 6:00 am Friday, February 24, 2023

ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County’s efforts to expand broadband service in the county are continuing, this time on a new front. County Commissioners Thursday approved a resolution supporting internet service providers intending to apply for state grants next month. 

County commissioners committed to making broadband expansion a priority last year when they earmarked $6 million out of the county’s $30 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to the project. The county gave out $1.5 million in grants to two townships before realizing that the $4.5 million left wouldn’t cover all the proposed projects from other townships. 

The current effort is centered around the ROBIN grant program which stands for Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks. The state has set aside $250.6 million for the program which internet service providers can apply for by March 14. 

The county’s goal is to apply for ROBIN funds and support the internet service providers by encouraging townships to pledge their own support including using their own ARPA dollars on approved projects. The county is also pledging use of its remaining $4.5 million set aside for broadband expansion. 

Thursday’s action came on the heels of a roundtable discussion Tuesday hosted by the county board’s BC Bit taskforce with five internet service providers and township leaders in attendance. The providers included Comcast, Surf Internet, 123 Net, Frontier and Midwest Energy. 

“We are all in on Berrien County,” Comcast representative Deb Piscola said. “… We plan to do one application for Berrien County with the bulk of addresses in the central part of the county and the western half of the county.” 

A Midwest Energy representative noted that his company, based in Cassopolis, is already expanding broadband to rural customers on the eastern edge of Berrien County through funding they received from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and will be looking to expand in and around those areas for their ROBIN application. 

The 123 Net representative said his company is already doing work in Allegan County and would likely pursue grant opportunities under the federal Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program rather than through ROBIN.  

The Surf Internet representative said his company already is doing work in northern Indiana and would likely look at applying for a grant for southern Berrien County. The Frontier representative said they currently have a small footprint in Berrien County in the Baroda, Bridgman and Stevensville area. 

County Administrator Brian Dissette and BC Bit Chairwoman Teri Freehling said they are looking to support the providers’ applications in any way they can. Besides pledging their $4.5 million in ARPA funds in Thursday’s resolution, they said they would encourage local townships to provide letters of support and pledges of their own funds. 

“We will combine our ARPA funs with some of the funds coming from local municipalities and internet service providers to put together for a very attractive application,” Dissette said. “The goal is to continue with our efforts to expand broadband to make sure everyone is receiving broadband internet access.” 

He gave a big thank you to the county board. “This resolution sets us up to be nimble and flexible and help internet service providers put together the most compelling applications to bring money back to Berrien County,” he said. 

Trail grant discussions

In other discussion, commissioners heard an update about trail grant applications. Dissette and Community Development Director Dan Fette reported on the county’s two Spark grant applications and noted the county is getting one to pay for new playground equipment at Silver Beach County Park, but is not getting one for the Lakeview M-63 Trail project. 

Fette said the county is now looking to take a different approach to get the Lakeview M-63 Trail project done. The proposed trail will run on and near the Whirlpool campus in Benton Township, with work on a tunnel underneath M-63 already getting underway. 

The $2.3 million project could be paid for through a $1.6 million MDOT grant for the 2025 fiscal year, a $402,000 donation from the Whirlpool Foundation and a $300,000 Michigan Department of Natural Resources Trust Fund grant. If the county pursues the trust fund grant, a public hearing will be held in March before the April 1 deadline. 

Dissette praised the board’s administration committee which worked for several months to develop a new trail policy for the county. The new policy sets down the trail maintenance plans that have to be in place for projects in the county in order to get county board support for those projects. 

Two road contracts were approved by the county board. The state and the county will be splitting the costs of repaving East Bertrand Road from M-51 to the eastern county line as well as work on a section of East John Beers Road south of St. Joseph.