BLOOMINGDALE — Thanks to a federal agency, high-speed broadband will be soon be extended to rural areas of Van Buren and Allegan counties.

Southwest Michigan Communications, a subsidiary of Bloomingdale Communications, expects to receive a $10.7 million combination loan/grant to bring fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband availability to 7,700 residents, 22 farms and 29 businesses in an area spread over 100 square miles.

The area includes portions of Lee and Cheshire townships in southern Allegan County and parts of Pine Grove, Bloomingdale, Columbia, Arlington and Almena townships in Van Buren County. The Van Buren townships are located primarily in the north central and northeastern part of the county.

The funding comes to Bloomingdale Communications courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect Program to bring reliable high-speed broadband to America’s rural areas.

“The need for rural broadband has never been more apparent than it is now – as our nation manages the coronavirus national emergency,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in announcing the initiative during a virtual press conference. “Access to telehealth services, remote learning for school children, and remote business operations all require access to broadband.”

State Rep. Beth Griffin, a proponent for expansion of high-speed broadband for rural areas of Van Buren County, was pleased to hear about the grant/loan for Bloomingdale Communications.

“As we’ve been forced to stay at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, internet access has become more vital than ever for the people of Southwest Michigan,” said Griffin, R-Mattawan. “Our children are learning from home, many workers and business owners are working from home, and for many patients, the only way to receive the routine and preventative health care they need is via telehealth. This grant will help to connect thousands of people in our most rural communities with internet access.”

The $10.7 million ReConnect loan/grant is the second one that Bloomingdale Communications has received to expand fiber-to-the-premises high-speed internet service to parts of Van Buren and Allegan counties. In 2018, the company received $12 million from the USDA to bring broadband services to portions of southern Allegan County and northeastern Van Buren County.

Many rural areas in the two counties currently have access to satellite internet services, but it is quite expensive and not as reliable. This is one of the factors behind the USDA’s efforts to expand fiber-optic broadband service to underserved parts of America.

“Fiber to the home involves constructing all new fiber optic cables along the roadside to replace the copper infrastructure that we have all been using for decades,” said Steve Shults, general manager and CEO of Bloomingdale Communications. “Our company normally buries that (the fiber optic cables) in the road right-of-way. We also bury a ‘drop’ line from the road to homes.” To complete the installation workers install an electronic device on the outside of a home to communication with the company’s equipment. Then a WiFi router is placed inside the dwelling.

“Fiber to the home service allows speeds up to 1 gigabit. We do not offer that right now but we could in the future,” Shults said.

Bloomingdale Communications is finishing up its first internet expansion project, undertaken in 2018.

“We are approximately halfway through that project,” Shults said. “It has stalled a little because installation of the new service into customers’ homes has been postponed due to COVID-19.”

The company plans to start the second phase of fiber-to-the-premises project in 2021 and complete it by 2023.