Business owners, officials aim to bring broadband to county

OSCEOLA COUNTY — From interactive health monitoring programs to digital literacy training, high-speed Internet plays a vital role in the lives of individuals in the modern world. With 49 percent of households in Osceola County unable to tap in to a high-speed connection, business owners and community members are being sought to work together to bring broadband to the area. Around 30 business owners along with local city and township officials came together Tuesday to discuss the possibility of high-speed Internet in Osceola county. Facilitated by Tom Stephensen, community technology adviser for Connect Michigan, the meeting’s goal was to inform residents of the process of bringing the service to the county as well as guage interest in forming a broadband, infrastructure and planning committee. The Federal Communications Commission classifies basic broadband spedds at 768 Kbps. Connect Michigan, a nonprofit organization, is working to unite public and private partners to increase the access, adoption and use of broadband throughout the state. The organization partners with technology-minded businesses, government entities and universities to accelerate access to technology in Michigan. The program is a free service funded by grants from the federal government. Charlevoix County recently was the first Connect Certified community in the nation, and nearly 30 other counties in the state currently are working with Connect Michigan. “I’ve seen the excitement in Clare County as they move from township to township, bringing them online. It’s a lot of work, and we need help getting started. That’s where Connect Michigan comes in,” said Paul Brown, Osceola Township supervisor. “There is nothing about our community that can’t be cured with economic development and having broadband available is an enabler for that.” In a preliminary analysis Stephensen completed on Osceola County, he found the area already meets 14 out of a possible 40 points for broadband availability, speed, provider competition, mobile device availability and infrastructure. To become certified, a county must meet 100 out of 125 points in three separate categories on a Connect Michigan review sheet, including factors such as digital literacy programs, economic opportunity, broadband mapping and high-speed healthcare usage. Also in the analysis, Stephensen found only 48 percent of rural business owners in Osceola County have websites. “When we break it down to see why these small businesses are not using a website — they don’t see any reason to,” Stephensen said. “We have an education issue here.” Along with bringing the service to communities in Michigan, an education portion also will be implemented to show local residents how to use broadband effectively. At Tuesday’s meeting, community members discussed a technology mentoring program for students as well as website creation and maintenance for local business owners, which could be offered through local chambers of commerce or libraries. Evart Public Library Director Lilas Vanscoyoc said she would be open to hosting technology education classes at the library if the county gains broadband connection. She attended the meeting Tuesday to learn how to bring fast Internet to the library’s patrons. Students often come to the library and use the computers for research and homework. Unemployed individuals and those who do not own computers also use the machines to fill out job applications. “We use dial-up in town and we (Evart Public Library) have 11 computers that we make available to the public,” Vanscoyoc said. “It would be an advantage to have it work better and faster.” Vanscoyoc said she plans on continuing to join in on the broadband effort by attending additional meetings. Along with offering faster Internet to the locals, broadband service also will attract tourists who may have to work during their vacation, Stephensen said. “If you have broadband available, instead of coming up on Friday night, (tourists) will come up Thursday night and extend their weekend up north,” he said. The process of bringing the service to the county would begin with committee members completing an assessment of the county, which would include surveys to learn who uses broadband and maps to cite current hotspots. Volunteers also will review topics such as the digital literacy of county residents, the number of public computers available and how different sectors currently utilize broadband access, including education, government and health care. The assessment period would take roughly six months and would be guided by Connect Michigan, but implemented solely by community members. “In order to make this successful, your part is essential in this,” Stephensen said. When a thorough assessment is complete by community members, the committee will develop a community technology plan, deciding where towers may need to be installed and where existing towers can be utilized. The whole process takes about 10 months. With Antrim County becoming the second certified community in the nation last week, Connect Michigan is leading the way for broadband connection in communities across the nation. “We’re pleased when down in Kentucky and Tennessee, they’re looking at what we’re doing here in Michigan,” Stephensen said.