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Broadband, internet expansion is coming to underserved areas in Cadillac area | News

For once there is a unified belief from governmental officials, companies who provide the service and the public — there is an increased need for broadband internet access.

With the influx of federal funding that is flooding states, many looking to get projects done that have previously seemed out of reach, including broadband expansion to underserved areas, are thinking if not now, when?

The hope is the answers may be coming soon.

102nd District Rep. Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, is the House Communications and Technology Committee chairwoman and getting broadband internet expansion has been a focus during her service.

She said her main focus has been trying to eliminate red tape for the businesses and companies that are trying to help with internet expansion.

This includes utilizing the funds associated with the Broadband Expansion Act of Michigan grant dollars.

The act was sponsored by Hoitenga and passed in October 2020. It required the Department of Technology, Management and Budget to establish a grant program for projects that extend broadband service using $14.3 million from the 2021 fiscal year budget.

At the time of its passing in 2020, Hoitenga said without guidance written into state law, the process for future grant funding for broadband infrastructure could be subject to administrative and bureaucratic preferences.

“We didn’t want to grow government and let them use the money as they saw fit,” she said.

She also said with the willingness for expansion and the funds to back it, she is looking to reintroduce bills that were previously vetoed.

The first would deal with personal property tax and Hoitenga said it incentivized internet expansion into unserved areas by giving temporary relief on the personal property tax on business equipment like internet fiber.

The second dealt with the right of way and railroads. Hoitenga said it would help streamline the process and be similar to what was done with road commissions.

“We are trying to eliminate as much red tape as we can,” she said.

In October 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the formation of the Connecting Michigan Taskforce, an interagency group that has worked to align the work being done by state agencies and departments related to high-speed internet access.

Whitmer also signed into law the Broadband Expansion Act of Michigan, which codified the Connecting Michigan Communities grant program. The Michigan Infrastructure Council also launched a “Dig Once” project portal that is designed for infrastructure asset owners to document infrastructure and utility work, which will help improve coordination and was called for both in the “21st Century Infrastructure Commission Report” and the “Michigan Broadband Roadmap.”

Late last year, Whitmer also issued an executive directive to state departments and agencies to collaborate with the legislature and ready the state to continue expanding high-speed internet access. Whitmer’s announcement was in preparation for the billions in federal funds Michigan is expected to receive over the next five years specifically for high-speed internet from the newly-enacted Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In March, Charter Communications Government Affairs Director Marilyn Passmore told the Wexford County Board of Commissioners that the municipality they serve would be getting increased access to broadband internet.

The expansion is part of Charter’s $5 billion investment to connect more than 1 million currently underserved, mostly rural families and small businesses to broadband service.

Passmore said the cost of this expansion is being offset by $1.2 billion in support the company won in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction.

Charter Spectrum Senior Director of Region Communications Bill Morand said the initial planning stage and design have begun and the permitting process is underway within Wexford County.

“We expect to begin connecting customers before the end of the summer, and will continue doing so on a rolling basis until the project is completed,” he said.

Broadband internet expansion is also coming to more residents in Missaukee County.

That was the message delivered to the Missaukee County commissioners from Passmore during the board’s recent meeting.

Passmore delivered a presentation detailing Charter’s multi-year, multi-billion plan to bring internet to over one million new customers, mostly rural families and small businesses.

Through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction, a fund dedicated to helping companies bring broadband to rural areas, Passmore said her company was awarded over 3,600 addresses throughout Missaukee County.

Over the next 10 years, she said Charter will be given $1.3 million through RDOF to begin building and expanding its services. In addition to that, Passmore said her company was also investing over $15 million of its money.

Along with the 3,600 addresses they were awarded, Passmore said Charter typically builds 30% more. As a result, she estimated an additional 400 new addresses could be a part of their expansion.

Passmore said people can check if their home will be part of the expansion by checking www.spectrumruralexpansion.com. Through this site, she said people can add their email and/or phone numbers to receive updates on the company’s progress.

After the meeting, Board Chair Dean Smallegan said he was excited about Charter’s plan.

“I’m thrilled Charter’s got the ability to come in and do an investment on their own,” Smallegan said. “There are pockets that are clearly going to benefit immediately. Then she mentioned that there will be others that will be along the way.”

“So, I’d say as soon as they are able to put in the fiber and get people hooked up, we’ll see improved service, which is just great.”

With the company’s builders already working on designs and planning, Passmore said they expect to begin sometime in the early spring of next year.

“It’s really exciting that Charter is investing,” County Administrator Elizabeth Vogel said. “Especially in significant parts of Missaukee County that have absolutely no broadband.”

“It’s so nice to know that we’re on the list. There are going to be some underserved populations that have never had broadband or access that will in the next few years, and that’s a huge improvement.”

Morand said in Lake and Missaukee counties, the initial planning stage process has begun and Charter Spectrum is in the design phases in some areas. He also confirmed construction is scheduled to begin in 2023.

In Osceola County, he said the expectation is initial planning stage and design will start in the second half of this year.

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