Published in Economic Development

Ottawa County selects nonprofit vendor in first phase of broadband internet assessment

BY Tuesday, April 27, 2021 04:27pm

WEST OLIVE — Ottawa County has hired an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit research organization owned by Michigan public universities to analyze local broadband internet service, identify gaps and recommend potential cures.

Hiring Merit Network Inc. as the vendor represents the first of a four-step process to improving high-speed internet access across Ottawa County, where broadband coverage in some areas remains spotty or inaccessible.

“Taking steps now to improve broadband access will ensure all Ottawa County families and businesses have the tools to compete now and in the future,” Paul Sachs, director of Ottawa County’s Planning and Performance Improvement, said in a statement.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners today approved a $42,000 contract with Merit Network to conduct the first phase of the digital inclusion strategy.

A group of cities, townships and private-sector parties will help cover the county’s cost of the analysis. Partnering organizations include Lakeshore Advantage, Grand Haven Area Community Foundation, Loutit District Library in Grand Haven, the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, Spectrum Health, West Coast Chamber of Commerce in Holland, West Michigan Lakeshore Association of Realtors, and the Zeeland Board of Public Works.

“The mission of this county broadband initiative is to identify solution(s) that will create access to affordable, reliable broadband of sufficient speed to meet the needs of 100 percent of Ottawa County’s residents, students and businesses,” according to a memo from Sachs to county commissioners recommending approval of the contract. “Comprehensive data collection is the essential and critical first step that will be used to help inform the strategies/solutions necessary to bridge the gap.”

Sachs expects Merit Network to begin gathering data in June, followed by an analysis and a final report by the end of the year. The contract and analysis is part of a comprehensive strategy to create universal access to affordable and reliable broadband access in Ottawa County.

A 2018 Federal Communications Commission broadband map estimated that 22 percent, or 28,000 households, in Ottawa County lack reliable high-speed internet service through a fixed source such as a fiber optic network. Sachs told MiBiz in January that he believes the 2018 FCC map was inaccurate and that the access gap is as high as 35 percent of Ottawa County’s 105,000 households.

“Communities have been struggling with the ‘digital divide’ for decades, and while some progress has been made in closing the gap, inequities persist across the country,” said Charlotte Bewersdorff, vice president of marketing and member engagement for Merit Network.

Economic development organizations have said that affordable high-speed internet access is critical for both businesses and households. Speakers at a conference last fall said that both Michigan and the nation need the same kind of concerted effort to deploy broadband as 90 years ago when the U.S. set out to electrify rural areas following the Great Depression, MiBiz reported at the time.

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