PAW PAW — Van Buren County officials and Market Van Buren have announced plans to spend the next several months to determine what funds are available to provide broadband internet service to residents.
A survey conducted earlier this summer by DCS Technology Design revealed that 24 percent of occupied properties – about 10,000, most located in rural areas – do not have access to broadband internet.
The good news for the county is nearly 4,000 of those dwellings and businesses are in the process of being served with internet through Bloomingdale Communications, leaving about 6,000 properties unserved.
The bad news, however, is that DCS Technology Design estimates it could cost anywhere from $33 million to $64 million to provide broadband services to the remaining properties.
It’s a lot of money, but Chris Scharrer, director of OSP Design for DCS Technology Design, said now is a good time to address the internet needs for residents.
“There’s a lot of ways to get funding and get it built,” he told county commissioners in July. “Van Buren County has more than 10,000 occupied parcels without access to reliable, high-speed broadband. There are federal and state programs that have started that will reach about 3,900 of those parcels, but still leaving over 6,000 without any plans for broadband access in the future.”
Several of those programs include the federal government’s recent America Rescue Plan Act and Broadband Access and Deployment Program, along with the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
To determine the best way to access those funds will be a role Market Van Buren, the region’s economic development agency, has agreed to undertake.
“Market Van Buren is beginning the process of researching funding, starting with state and federal grants that are, or may become, available,” said Van Buren County Interim Administrator Ryan Post. “They are also putting together a committee consisting of stakeholders throughout the county to ensure that we are working with the townships, villages and cities to the best of our ability.”
Internet providers throughout Van Buren County will also be a part of the process of providing broadband to unserved areas. Once the county determines what funding is available, it will then seek bids from service providers.
“No timeframes can be set until we have information about additional funding and when that funding will be available,” Post said.
Currently, Scharrer said there are at least eight internet service providers in the county.
“There’s multiple internet providers,” Scharrer said. “We didn’t even know who they all were when we started the survey. This (county) has got to be one of the most complicated cable areas that I’ve encountered.”
Companies providing services in the county include Comcast, Midwest Energy Communications, Charter, Sister Lakes Cable, Mediacom, Bloomingdale Communications, and more recently, Mercury Wireless and AT&T.
Several of those companies have obtained funding through the FCC’s Connect America Fund and Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to extend services into such rural areas as Waverly Township, Keeler Township, Bloomingdale Township and most recently portions of Geneva Township.