Building Broadband Momentum in Berrien County
Tuesday, June 6, 2023
Building Broadband Momentum in Berrien County
As more communities devise their own broadband solutions, leveraging the upcoming funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, what makes for successful efforts that are responsive to community needs? This is the first of six case studies that seek to understand the stories of broadband community champions and the factors that contributed to their success. A final analysis will identify the characteristics of effective broadband leaders, and develop a taxonomy of those working to improve broadband access in their communities in official and unofficial capacities. This research is supported by the Marjorie & Charles Benton Opportunity Fund.
Berrien County’s 580 square miles encompasses 39 villages, townships, and cities. The county, situated on Lake Michigan’s eastern shore, is dominated by agriculture and tourism; many Chicago residents’ vacation homes are located here.
A lack of broadband infrastructure in the county is actively threatening industrial innovation and hampering quality of life for residents as needs and demand for connectivity increase. As of today, the county has made substantial progress toward universal access within the community. Critical to these efforts were two behind-the-scenes champions: sixth-generation family farmer and County Commissioner Teri Sue Freehling, and landscape architect turned regional planner John Egelhaaf. Together, Teri and John provided the momentum necessary to capitalize on recent funding opportunities and deliver an actionable plan for improving broadband connectivity for their community.
Teri’s acute ability to ignite a personal connection with residents from every walk of life and John’s persistent belief in the power of information have been critical drivers of Berrien County’s efforts to connect everyone in the county to broadband.
History of Connectivity in Berrien
As early as 2013, the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC) identified inadequate broadband access as a threat to the region’s quality of life and economic development. After conducting an assessment of connectivity in the county, efforts were paused in 2015 due to fallow funding and low levels of interest from government officials. As recent state and federal funding opportunities became available, SWMPC and a group of Berrien County commissioners banded together to advocate for the prioritization of broadband equity in their community. The Berrien County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution identifying the critical need of county residents and businesses to access reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband in April 2019, kicking off efforts in earnest.
While Federal Communications Commission industry-provided data found that 88% of the county had access to a broadband internet connection, Merit Network, Michigan’s Research and Education Network, conducted citizen-driven, household-level research in 2020 that found that fewer than 36% of residents had access to broadband internet connections, and 36% of residents had no access to internet at all. Furthermore, a majority of unconnected households reported that they were willing to pay for internet service at their properties if it were available.
The Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force, a county sub-committee focused on increasing broadband access, contracted with DCS Technology Design as a next step. DCS identified nearly 6,500 unserved parcels in the county that were not slated to receive future service through existing funding programs through this study. To ensure countywide access, a partnership was formed between Berrien County, 18 municipalities and four broadband providers to apply for Michigan’s Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) grant. The ROBIN grant is a $238 million competitive last- and middle-mile grant program that provides funds to ISPs and public-private partnerships and is funded by Michigan’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Capital Projects Fund award. Berrien County’s ROBIN grant application requested $19 million to connect the remaining unserved households. Berrien County, the municipalities, and the providers have pledged $19 million in matching funds. No awards have been made at the time of this report for the ROBIN grant, however, a successful grant would be sufficient to connect all of the unserved residents in Berrien County.
Berrien’s Broadband Champions
Berrien County Commissioner for the 8th District Teri Sue Freehling realized she needed to bring attention to the issue of inadequate connectivity in rural areas after experiencing its consequences on her own family's farm. She had slow and unreliable satellite internet, which led her to canvass the community and discover that the problem was widespread. “I’d run into farmers in a circle drinking their morning coffee at the gas station complaining about how far behind they were with technology because of the internet problems where we live.” She noted that a lack of reliable internet was hindering farmers from implementing precision agriculture techniques, which leverage technology to enhance sustainability and efficiency, causing them to fall behind in their yields. These conversations highlighted the urgent need to improve Berrien’s internet infrastructure to support local businesses’ growth and competitiveness.
The need for connectivity in the region was noticed concurrently within the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC). As funding became more attainable and needs escalated in the county due to the pandemic, SWMPC Executive Director John Egelhaaf recognized the opportunity to improve many quality of life metrics through broadband equity. “Broadband cross-cuts across the prominent issues facing our community, like mobility, food access, and housing,” John noted.
Teri and John banded together with another commissioner and the county administrator to form the “Berrien Broadband Brain Trust,” which later evolved into the Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force. Teri operated within the community to advocate for connectivity and understand residents’ needs, while John worked to facilitate commissioners’ understanding of the broadband landscape in support of a connectivity blueprint. John described his role as setting the table - he organized meetings, built agendas, shared notes, and organized the group. “I felt like I was building a road map,” he said.
Teri and John differ in their backgrounds, strategies, and leadership philosophies. However, the two share analogous qualities integral to their success. Progress in this community can be attributed to the ability of the two non-technical, semi-reluctant leaders to educate, communicate, and inspire.
Overcoming some commissioners’ initial resistance to prioritize broadband access and convincing them that connectivity was not a luxury was a challenge for John and Teri. John realized the first step was to educate himself. “Early on, I had the feeling that I was alone in a forest. The environment was vast and virtually unknowable.” Over time, he developed a compendium of notes, data, and contacts that he shared in Berrien County planning meetings. John strategically leveraged his position to build momentum for the cause. He believed that the power of a strong idea, such as universal broadband access, would prevail, but acknowledged that successful implementation required collaboration and a collective approach. Rather than leading and dictating every step, he recognized the need to tackle connectivity as a member of that collective. “I was confident that sharing the progress we were making and the information we were learning would trigger enough interest from the commissioners that they would want to join us,” he said.
Persuading many in the community was a second challenge. According to Teri, this can in part be attributed to the lack of connectivity in the region. “Because they have no internet here, they’ve learned to live life in a way that’s OK without it. Trying to convince them to see the value in investing in broadband for the longer purpose of improving the economy and well-being has been challenging.” Teri worked to persuade people by immersing herself in her community, continually educating residents about broadband and its influence on quality of life as an extension of her daily interactions - much to the dismay and embarrassment of her teenage daughters. Similar to John, Teri refrained from labeling herself as a leader. Instead, she held the belief that it's the responsibility of individuals to step up and fill a gap as it arises. “I talked to the media, service organizations, regional chambers, the Farm Bureau, in restaurants, anywhere I thought I could explain the ‘why’ of broadband” she said. Teri shared the connections between individuals’ lived experiences and the transformative power of broadband on residents’ livelihoods, children’s education, and ability to keep close to family.
Both Teri and John value the social components of broadband and leverage this to inspire those around them toward action. From a planning perspective, John understands the interconnectedness of broadband and social cohesion to impact holistic improvements to quality of life. Teri acknowledges that connectivity allows us to feel a sense of belonging even when we can't be physically present. Without it, she said, “Tasks like conducting business, attending school, and connecting with loved ones would be nearly impossible.”
Pivotal Moments of Triumph
Teri and John were driven by several crucial turning points in their efforts. Teri described the watershed moment when the board was swayed and passed Berrien County Resolution F1904199 which prioritized broadband infrastructure. She said the community’s COVID-19 experiences “helped make the why more relevant and understandable,” and may have contributed to passing the resolution. John identified a second moment of euphoria when he realized that the goal of countywide broadband could be achieved. During a Berrien County Broadband Internet Task Force meeting, broadband providers interested in applying for the Michigan ROBIN infrastructure grant presented their intentions to cover 95% of the county with broadband. When reflecting on the moment, John described a keynote presentation he attended last fall during which Peggy Schaffer, then director of the ConnectME Authority, stated that working on broadband may be the most important thing you ever do as a professional. “That comment hasn’t left me. I may turn around to see a different world someday.” The ROBIN applications, to John, were a step toward that.
As they await a decision on the ROBIN grant, John and Teri have begun to extend their aspirations beyond connectivity. Digital equity, the deployment of precision agriculture, longitudinal investment, and efficacy studies are amongst their next horizons.
Pierrette Renee Dagg is a Benton Institute Digital Opportunity Fund Fellow, the Director of Technology Impact Research at Merit Network, and a PhD student at University of Toledo. The aim of her work is to bridge the gap between academic scholarship and practical application to advance issues of technology understanding and information equity.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.
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