Paying It Forward in Washtenaw County

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, December 14, 2023

Digital Beat

Paying It Forward in Washtenaw County

Pierrette Renee Dagg

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 fourth 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.

Barb Fuller is a former dental hygienist and political activist. Gary Munce is a musician and retired library manager of information systems. Driven by a spirit of paying it forward, together they have worked to address the digital divide in Washtenaw County, Michigan. Thanks in part to their efforts, by early 2025, every home in Washtenaw County is set to be connected with high-speed, fiber-based broadband.

Washtenaw County, in the southeast region of Michigan, is home to over 320,000 residents. Although the county is prosperous, youthful with a median age below 35, and is home to the University of Michigan, it faced a digital divide with more than 10,000 households lacking a broadband internet connection in 2018.

Long-term Commitment

Barb Fuller
                 Barb Fuller

Gary and Barb’s motivation to bridge the digital divide stemmed from personal experiences as  community members witnessing the impact of inadequate internet connectivity on the young people. As a parent, Gary said, “I tried every way of connecting that was available—satellite dishes, modems—it was difficult and unreliable.” As a library network manager, Gary also understood who was being left behind by a lack of connectivity and the impact it had on the broader community. “I have a close view of what it means for residents who didn’t understand the true benefits of broadband but really needed it,” he explained. Similarly, Barb noticed the significant disadvantages faced by students as they struggled to complete school work without home internet. This experience led her to approach the county about access disparities across the community. 

Although Barb and Gary’s efforts have been successful, countywide connectivity in Washtenaw has been a long-term commitment. Their initial conversations with county administrators began more than ten years ago. County leaders were skeptical at first. However, Barb convinced them to appoint a broadband subcommittee in 2017 to investigate the urgent need to improve infrastructure to support educational outcomes in the community. The subcommittee evolved into the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, featuring Barb as the chairperson and including Gary among its members, thereby initiating the county's project in earnest.

Lyndon’s Lessons

Gary was well positioned to help Washtenaw pursue ubiquitous fiber options because of lessons he learned from connecting Lyndon Township, one of the first municipal networks in Michigan. Gary, the current Deputy Supervisor of Lyndon Township, attended a broadband meeting, the Western Washtenaw Broadband Group, convened by State Rep. Gretchen Driskell and Chelsea District Library in 2013 but grew frustrated with the pace. He and a handful of residents decided to solve the internet access challenge for their community themselves.  

Gary and the other volunteers realized that no existing provider was interested in offering service in their small community. “It was a moment that was both frightening and empowering. We had to go through a lot of dark alleys to figure it out. There was no model to follow.” Gary and others within the township were determined to own and operate their own network. Few Michigan communities had embarked on building municipal networks at that time and they faced numerous hurdles like unfamiliarity with the RFP process, restrictive state laws, and funding uncertainties. 

Gary Munce
             Gary Munce

The network was completed in 2020. Now, nearly 90% of the town’s residents subscribe to the municipal network. The network is primarily maintained by local volunteers and is owned by Lyndon Township. Midwest Energy and Communications (MEC), a nonprofit cooperative based in Cassopolis, Michigan, operates the network under a five-year contract with the township. This contract is up for renewal in 2025. The Broadband Oversight Committee of Lyndon Township supervises the overall management of the network and has begun to solicit proposals from MEC and other service providers for review. 

Gary's hands-on experience in Lyndon proved invaluable in educating the Washtenaw County task force and local authorities about the necessary laws, models, and technology for constructing the network. “Grassroots movements are about neighbors,” Gary said. “There were a lot of others in our county who were struggling. It was up to us to pay it forward and help the rest of the community.” 

An Experienced Activist

Barb also leveraged her history of activism to tackle the county’s broadband problem. Barb spent much of her career assisting progressive Democratic women run for public office. Her background and relationship-building skills created credibility that mattered when advocating for the county commissioners to support broadband expansion. She attributes the county’s commitment to ubiquitous infrastructure to her relentless tenacity, in part. 

“I am the invisible glue that keeps things moving,” she explained. “I’m the tracker. I make sure we hit our deadlines. I keep a legal pad at my bedside to help me remember tasks that occur to me in the middle of the night. It takes someone who is a little obsessive about these things to make it work.

Educating, Communicating, and Inspiring

The pair’s personal efforts to educate, communicate, and inspire were paramount to the project. Educating decisionmakers about the need for countywide fiber was instrumental. The Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force partnered with Michigan research and education network Merit in 2020 to conduct a household-level connectivity and sentiment survey. This study confirmed broadband disparities in the county, demonstrating 61 percent more unconnected residents than indicated by Federal Communications Commission data. Nearly 10,000 households in the county were unserved at this time. 

Data from the 2020 task force study revealed that 64 percent of households in the county did not have access to reliable, affordable, high-speed broadband. This information, along with subsequent pre-engineering efforts, was key in informing county commissioners and township leaders about significant access disparities, which were previously unknown to many. 

Any amount of unconnected residents was unacceptable to Barb. She said, “We made the case with these reports. We were ready to actively pursue county-wide connectivity when [American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)] funding became available because of the work we had done along the way to demonstrate the need.” 

The county partnered with private entities to conduct pre-engineering work and leveraged these plans, along with survey data, to incentivize Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) submissions. The ARPA funds replaced the need to apply for RDOF funds. The preparation for an RDOF application laid the foundation for the appeal to the county board of commissioners to allocate a portion of their ARPA dollars towards broadband deployment to the 3,300 households without access to reliable, affordable, high speed broadband.  

Barb, and the task force, encouraged the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners to allocate $14.6 million in American Rescue Plan funding to private partners to build the remaining infrastructure in the county. In fall 2021, county commissioners approved the use of ARPA funds to achieve 100% county-wide broadband infrastructure.

In describing her efforts, Barb said, “I’m a never-ending nag. I didn’t let up. I sent communications, meeting notices, and kept in touch with the commissioners to emphasize urgency, give them a sense of our momentum and build awareness.” This one-on-one communication was key in officials reaching consensus about allocating ARPA funds. 

While Barb focused on politics and relationship building, Gary leveraged his trial-by-fire experience in Lyndon to contribute to Washtenaw’s success. “As much as we want to think about broadband as a technical exercise of cables and switches, that’s the easy part. Other things like negotiating with government entities, financing, and navigating laws are what’s difficult.” Gary described himself as versatile. “I have a wide range of skills, a lot of enthusiasm, and the willingness to take anything on.”

Barb and Gary worked together to inspire action. To Gary, “The success of a project is the people. You need to find people that are invested in the outcome, because they won’t take no for an answer and they won’t give up.” That sentiment, along with relentless effort and their belief in their ability to connect every resident inspired more than 20 residents and officials in the county to join the task force and work together to connect the community. Gary’s experience in Lyndon had provided a roadmap, but persistence and faith were equally important. Barb said “When we started, we had no idea how we were going to fund high-speed broadband. We just kept working and when the money came, we were shovel ready.”

What's Next?

By early 2025 every household in Washtenaw County will be connected to high speed broadband through various private companies. Several ISPs are currently constructing fiber, with a target completion of the end of 2024. Infrastructure and network validation will be conducted in 2025 to ensure that infrastructure and high-speed service are reaching all of the county’s residents.

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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