WEST OLIVE, MI – In an effort to secure a major federal grant, Ottawa County commissioners have committed up to $7.5 million to a public/private partnership that brings fiber internet to underserved areas of the county.
County Administrator John Gibbs was directed by the Board of Commissioners to sign a letter of intent pledging funds as part of an application filed with the state on Tuesday, March 14.
The grant application is a partnership between Ottawa County and 123NET, a fiber internet company based in Southfield. As part of the partnership, 123NET will invest $3.5 million in the Ottawa County project, while the county itself is contributing up to $7.5 million. In return, the district and 123NET hope to receive slightly more than $16 million.
The grant, called Realizing Opportunities through Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN), was awarded by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Michigan Legislature in early 2022 to expand high-speed Internet to unserved areas throughout the state. An estimated $238.7 million in funding is available through ROBIN and grant recipients must provide Internet speeds of at least 100 megabits per second to customers.
“It was recognized that Ottawa County has a great need to ensure that citizens are fully served with broadband,” said Doug Weber, a consultant for Ottawa County with Urban Wireless Solutions. “We got cost estimates, but it was $56 million to $59 million. It is difficult to understand where that money will come from, so we started looking at other opportunities, opportunities for grants.”
If Ottawa County and 123NET are awarded ROBIN’s requested price, the total fiber internet project will be approximately $27 million. 123NET is already working on a similar fiber internet project in Allegan County, where the company plans to build more than 1,000 miles of fiber in rural areas, serving more than 12,000 residents.
In some fiber projects carried out by 123NET, the internet speed offered to customers is 6 gigabits per second, which is 60 times faster than the 100 megabits per second speed required by the grant rules.
In rural areas of Ottawa County, getting reliable internet can be very difficult and expensive due to the lack of internet service providers (ISPs) serving those areas. The 123NET partnership plan to create an open fiber network will allow greater access to those rural areas of the region.
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Although it may not be financially viable to run fiber to every home in rural areas, the network created by fiber will still allow wireless Internet access in many rural areas of the region.
“Many ISPs can’t reach rural areas because it’s not cheap,” said Weber. “Fiber is considered the gold standard but fixed wireless can be delivered effectively. To make that part happen, there needs to be fiber in the ground for the data to be transmitted to the (radio) towers.
Weber said the fiber network will also be able to serve community-oriented areas such as schools, hospitals and public safety facilities throughout Ottawa County.
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The ROBIN grant application process is highly competitive, with Internet providers like Comcast, Charter and others all competing for the same pool of state funding. Applications will be placed on a points system, with the total number of points making applications more attractive to the government.
The category in the application with the highest score is the largest contribution. If the applicant is willing to provide 51% of the project’s funding, the application receives 40 points, compared to eight points if that 51% threshold is not reached. Weber said working with 123NET on the grant application allows the district’s application to look as desirable as possible.
“We’re turning $7.5 million into a $27 million project,” Weber said. “(123NET) has also committed to investing dollars in the region to build a data center and storefront in Ottawa County. There is a long-term investment going on with fiber. “
The $7.5 million earmarked for the district’s fiber internet project comes from the COVID-19 American Rescue Plan Act funding, which is intended to provide funding for infrastructure projects.
According to the first map of where the fiber lines will run underground in the county, the fiber project will bring high-speed Internet service to 9,874 addresses in Ottawa County that do not currently have such service.
“This network is just getting started and about 10,000 addresses is the beginning,” 123NET CEO Dan Irvin said at Tuesday’s board of commissioners meeting. “It goes into every corner, every region… We will be happy to help anyone who wants us to come and work for them. The most important thing is to serve the underserved.”
According to the feedback received by the district during a survey on broadband internet needs, one of the most vocal groups asking for better internet access was small farmers. Weber said he hopes the availability of fiber internet will help small farmers in Ottawa County stay competitive.
“We all know that the farming business in this country is changing,” said Weber. “There are many small farmers here and they need to compete with the big corporate farms. Smart farming is a big way they can stay competitive. We feel that is the most important part of the community to work with throughout this project.”
Applications for ROBIN grants will be reviewed by the state of Michigan next month and awardees will be notified by the end of April. Any ROBIN grant awarded by the government must be used for related projects by 2026.
“As soon as the awards are made, 123NET plans to start working,” said Weber.
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