By RAY WILBUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — Small towns across the state are eyeing ways to build their own utilities that boast high-speed internet reliability and better access for residents than traditional internet providers.
They face one challenge: the cost.
Fiber optic internet is faster than normal cable internet. It is less likely to crash during a power outage and isn’t affected by geography such as sand dunes or hills.
Counties, cities and townships, especially where cable internet is inadequate, have begun to implement such systems, said Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan, a nonprofit organization that promotes broadband expansion across the state.
But experts say Michigan is behind.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, boasts internet access through fiber optics with download speeds 200 times faster than traditional internet. New York lawmakers last year approved $500 million to increase fiber optics networks across the state.
Michigan needs to act quickly to catch up to regions where technology companies will be attracted because of their access to such high-speed connections, said Al Meshkin, the manager of Laketown Township in Allegan County, where last spring voters rejected a plan for an $8.5 million fiber optics network by a scant 110 votes.
Michigan’s main challenge is how to pay for it. Some successes:
- Sebewaing, located on Saginaw Bay, had the infrastructure for fiber optics already built for its utilities. The city borrowed from its electric revenue to extend fiber optics to its residents.
- Traverse City is weighing options for an estimated $15-20 million project to expand its fiber optics which already provides free wi-fi downtown.
- In Mecosta County, west of Mt.Pleasant, a local internet provider is laying 400 miles of fiber optics with $26.4 million in stimulus funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Broadband Initiatives Program. The fiber will stretch through parts of Big Rapids as well.
Increasingly, as in Mecosta County, the federal government is offering subsidies to build broadband networks where connection is poor or nonexistent, Frederick said.
The federal government in July offered $363 million to the state’s internet carriers to spur improvements in broadband connection in 180,000 homes and businesses in the next six years.
“The federal government really does take broadband seriously,” Frederick said. “With more subsidies comes more broadband connections to people who don’t have it.”
Holland is also looking into fiber optics. Its utilities already communicate using a high-speed connection similar to Sebewaing’s. The goal is to expand that connection to downtown Holland and its residents.
“Holland is not a top market for Comcast and the carriers don’t have motivation to increase speeds,” said Daniel Morrison, president of Collective Idea, a tech company partnered with Holland Fiber to promote the expansion of fiber optics. “Holland City Council has made broadband one of their top priorities for this year.”
Interest is high — the only issue is how the city will pay for the potentially $65 million project, Morrison said.
“The first goal is to hook up businesses in the downtown area with fiber optics and expand from there,” he said. “There is already engineering preparation being done to accomplish that goal.”