Broadband. Internet. Connectivity. Throughout the pandemic, terms have been mentioned as sources of frustration — specifically, the lack of accessibility in rural areas.
The issue is wide-spread, impacting schools, businesses, farms, health services and more, according to Monica Schuyler, executive director of the Pennies from Heaven Foundation.
Pennies from Heaven is one of several parties investing in a survey to determine locations in the county that do not have an internet connection capability.
Early in the pandemic, an informal group of nonprofits and community leaders came together to connect resources in order to serve Mason County during a challenging time.
“At these meetings, broadband internet access kept coming up as an issue for schools, for telehealth appointments, for businesses doing remote work,” Schuyler said. “A small group of people within that larger team said, ‘We really want to look at this and see what we can do.’”
Schuyler said the team, unofficially called the Mason County Broadband Group, decided to follow the Michigan Moonshot Broadband Framework by Merit Network.
The Merit Network is a “nonprofit, member-owned organization governed by Michigan’s public universities,” according to its website.
The Moonshot Initiative aims to help improve connectivity in Michigan by providing information on data, mapping, policy, funding, education and resources.
“(It’s) a nonprofit service provider that helped develop a framework, or checklist, that communities can follow to help improve access and connectivity,” Schuyler said. “The survey is one of those first steps to help us identify the problems in our community.”
Schuyler said the group, which includes Eric Smith and Patti Skinner from the Mason County District Library, and Jeremy Vronko from Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, decided not to use a third party to perform the survey.
“We’re trying to create our own and the last hurdle is to ensure we are properly collecting addresses so we can map the results,” she said.
The goal is to find the “trouble spots” and then work toward fixing them.
“We’re trying to keep the survey short and sweet. We’re trying to find different residents, where they are located, what access they do or don’t have, which providers and fees they might have, and what they would be interested in as far as broadband connectivity,” she said. “It should be an easy 10-minute survey.”
The group has partnered with Western Land Services, a land brokerage firm based in Ludington, to assist with the mapping.
The Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce is acting as the fiduciary on the project. West Shore Community College, the West Shore Educational Service District, the Manistee Intermediate School District, Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, Pennies from Heaven and the chamber have invested in the survey.
Schuyler said there isn’t a launch date for the survey, but she hopes it will be soon. When it is released, she asked that the community embrace it and respond even if they already have good internet access.
“The more results we get back, the better data we have and the more we can do about it,” she said.
They are hoping to capture at least 20 percent of the community.
“That will give us a good picture,” she said. “If we get that within the first month the survey is open, then I think we’ll get results back with a few months.”
Another early step in the process is to do a feasibility study, which will be completed by Aspen Wireless Technologies based in Maple City.
“(The study) looks at our infrastructure, resources and engineering to guide us to potential solutions,” Schuyler said. “It will be running simultaneously with the survey. (Aspen Wireless) has a long track record of being able to do this well.”
While the project is still in its early stages, Schuyler said they have discussed options that might be available to solve the connectivity problems.
“We are trying to keep our minds open. We know that municipalities will probably be a part of the solution in some way. We want to work with them,” she said.
Some of those solutions could be revising policies, ordinances and fee structures that are causing barriers for service providers to extend services. She said they will also be looking into municipal-owned broadband and grants from state and federal governments.
“There are a lot of different opportunities,” she said.
The final results from the survey will be made public, likely through Pennies from Heaven and possibly the chamber of commerce, Schuyler said.
She also wants to have a training and informational seminar explaining the results, but because of the pandemic it may be online instead of in person.
“(Connectivity) is important for the community, the work that we do and for moving us forward,” she said.