A Leader for Allegan County's Broadband Journey

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, March 11, 2024

Digital Beat

A Leader for Allegan County's Broadband Journey

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 last of six case studies seeking 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.

Pierrette Renee Dagg

Allegan County’s journey to universal connectivity has overcome a number of obstacles: accurately determining the extent of connectivity gaps, exploring potential strategic solutions, and tackling costs in a manner palatable to the community. Advancing this initiative required a leader with deep industry knowledge and a strong connection to the community. A leader who would refuse to take no for an answer and demand that incumbent internet service providers work with her, rather than against her. 

Jill Dunham, the Broadband Project Manager for Allegan County, has been instrumental in the county’s journey. Currently, only 472 of over 44,000 households remain without a funded plan for a high-speed internet connection, and Jill continues to drive the efforts to connect these remaining homes, too. 

Situated on the shores of Lake Michigan in the southwestern region of the state, Allegan County is primarily rural, with a few small urban areas. The majority of its inhabitants are Caucasian, but Hispanic and African American populations are growing. The local economy is bolstered by sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism.

For almost two decades, Allegan County has been actively pursuing widespread broadband internet access, engaging in public discussions and conducting surveys among residents. By 2022, the U.S. Census reported that 89 percent of households in Allegan County had a broadband internet subscription. With a career history in telecommunications and knowing Allegan County very well, Jill knew this could not be accurate. While internet connectivity in urban areas of the county was generally reliable, rural areas relied on high-cost satellite service or cell phone hotspots—neither of which qualify as high-speed. 

A Determined, Persistent Advocate

Jill Dunham
                                 Jill Dunham

In 2021, Allegan County decided to use all of its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for infrastructure improvements, focused on broadband and water systems. When the county established the role of Broadband Project Manager, Jill Dunham knew this was her “dream job.” As the chair of the Allegan County Democratic Party, Jill had been voluntarily aiding in assessing the community's connectivity issues. With her 40-year background in telecommunications, Jill longed for a role that connected her more closely with her community and allowed her to use her extensive expertise to help her neighbors in need. She believed she was the ideal candidate, and the county agreed. Known for her commitment to community organizing, Jill has a proven track record of collaboration, including serving on her local school board and leading bond initiatives. She attributes her success to her belief in the importance of incorporating diverse viewpoints in discussions, saying, "I’m successful because I believe all perspectives need to be included in conversations to see what each other doesn’t see."

Jill’s goal was to build a comprehensive plan that accounted for 100 percent broadband infrastructure access in Allegan County. While Jill favored municipal broadband as a solution, it didn’t make sense for the county to run a network that would either overbuild existing areas that had internet or only serve the least desirable areas from a business perspective. She was willing to put aside her standpoint to find a pragmatic answer. As a next step, she met with one of the leading incumbent providers in the community to better understand the cost of building broadband infrastructure to the unserved homes. The incumbent’s number, $45 million, was much less than the county anticipated, so it decided to open a Request for Proposals (RFP) for any provider to bid on. 

To develop the RFP, Jill needed a granular map of unserved households. This was more difficult than she anticipated.  In her role with the Allegan County Democratic Party, Jill worked with the Michigan Broadband Cooperative to understand the Federal Communications Commission’s connectivity maps. Later, she leveraged provider connectivity data, county survey results, and RFP responses to build a case that the community could support.

After signing a nondisclosure agreement with the nine providers that responded to the RFP, it was evident that the data that came back greatly overstated coverage. Places that county leadership personally knew had no infrastructure were represented as served by the incumbents. Jill was determined to understand the real state of connectivity. For example, during a teleconference, she convinced a sales representative from a provider to screen share their internal coverage maps, and Jill secretly took photos of the screen, which showed different information than what she had been initially given. She pushed back on the provider by focusing on her own township, where she knew firsthand that the coverage was significantly overstated. With Jill stressing the importance that no residents be left out, the provider came back with a much more accurate version of its map. Ultimately, a majority of the providers shared current infrastructure maps after Jill's unrelenting pressure. The accurate data allowed Allegan County to release the RFP to get a reasonable estimate of the cost of the project. 

Jill attributes much of her success to her ability to build relationships. Within her first three days as the Broadband Project Manager, she’d talked with all 24 townships in the county. 

“It was essential to get to know them to start communicating and dispelling their cynicism,” Jill said. “Most of the townships were incredulous that this could happen and they didn’t believe we could do it at first.” 

Building relationships with providers, over time, was also key, along with her “indomitable spirit” and refusal to back down from a challenge. “When I decide to do something, it will happen. I’m a git-er-done farm girl.” 

Jill started with a belief that she could find a way. She began with a vision and resolved to fill in the gaps n Allegan County over time. “I listen to my detractors, and just keep moving obstacles when they show up,” she said. This persistent vision, strong connections with individuals and the community, and an openness to all viewpoints motivated the townships and locals to work together and back her strategy for achieving total broadband connectivity.

What's Next

The RFP was released in 2022. 123Net responded to the 2022 RFP and was ultimately chosen to construct infrastructure throughout the county. Allegan is contributing $17.7 million in ARPA funding. 123Net is contributing 25 percent of the cost of the build itself, and won $29 million in Michigan’s Realizing Opportunity with Broadband Infrastructure Networks (ROBIN) Grant Program. Eleven thousand households will be served through ROBIN funding, and approximately 4,500 more households will be connected by several other providers who were awarded Rural Digital Opportunity Funds from the Federal Communications Commission or ReConnect funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

In November 2023, 123Net began providing service to its first customers in Allegan County who previously lacked connectivity. The project is expected to be completed by 2025. However, there are still a few areas with no infrastructure and no funded plan to reach them. Jill is committed to securing more federal funds and relentlessly pursuing cooperation with service providers to ensure all remaining locations are connected, down to a six-household area in Saugatuck State Park that is still unconnected. She expressed her characteristic determination, stating, "I'm going to hunt them all down."

See more in this series

Dr. Pierrette Renee Dagg, Ph.D is a Benton Institute Digital Opportunity Fund Fellow, the Director of Technology Impact Research at Merit Network. 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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