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$1.5 billion federal grant aims to bring high-speed internet "to every corner of the state"

broadband internet wires
Alex Tihonov
Adobe Stock

A $1.5 billion federal grant for Michigan announced on Monday could vastly expand internet access in rural areas and among people who cannot afford a high-quality connection.

The grant will use money from 2021’s bipartisan infrastructure bill to bring high-quality internet connections to communities around the state. It's part of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program, which altogether will provide $42 billion to bring affordable high-speed internet to people throughout the U.S.

Eric Frederick, Michigan's chief connectivity officer, was at the White House on Monday for the announcement. In a text, Fredericks said that BEAD "will be used to ensure the universal availability of high-speed internet to every location and community in the state and to create a more digitally inclusive Michigan. We will be rolling out infrastructure grants to build new connections in every corner of the state with those funds.”

The $1.5 billion award comes on the heels of two much smaller but still consequential grants announced in the last 10 days.

One involves laying fiber-optic cable across Lake Michigan. The "middle mile" grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, announced on June 16, totals $61 million. It will add 535 miles of new broadband infrastructure, giving internet access to 35,000 homes in rural areas.

The company 123Net will use money from this grant to lay fiber-optic cable in Southwest Michigan, including two 65-mile lines of cable under Lake Michigan. Chuck Irvin is the company's executive vice president. He said the Lake Michigan portion of the project will connect Chicago with Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. From there, it will go to a data facility in Byron Center and serve communities all along the route.

“It gets the network in the vicinity, but it doesn't actually extend it into the homes," he said. "So, it solves the middle-mile part of that problem, but not necessarily the last mile.”

The other project tackles the last-mile problem. The $238 million ROBIN Grant Program, announced June 20, brings high-speed internet directly into homes and businesses. It will expand internet access in 57 counties, including Berrien, Allegan and Kalamazoo.

Teri Freehling is the chair of Berrien County’s Broadband Internet Task Force. She said that during the pandemic many rural residents were left out when school and medical appointments moved online.

Freehling called the grants “life-changing.” She said the money not only pays for the infrastructure to increase access, it makes connectivity more affordable and provides communities with funding for digital literacy education.

“If you don't know how to use those devices within your home, then it's really just a paperweight and not a tool," she said.

Freeling said the state grant alone will help over 10,000 households in Berrien County.

As for the number of Michigan addresses without internet, estimates vary. But Chuck Irvin at 123Net puts it at about 400,000. Irvin said the other two other grants, announced earlier this month, will help about quarter of those households. He said the $1.5 billion from the BEAD grant will take care of the rest.

“That's slated to help connect the remainder of those roughly 300,000 addresses that today are unserved or underserved,” he said.

Irvin said the project he's working on must be completed in five years, but he said he expects much of the work to wrap up in 2026.

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