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A Broadband Success Story in Lower Northern Michigan

By Wil Payton, Communications Specialist, Connected Nation


Clare County, MI. (September 26, 2011) -  Rolling hillsides, heavy foliage, and low-density housing which makes the county aesthetically appealing and technologically challenged. The landscape has natural barriers that could hamper high-speed Internet development and possibly undermine economic growth. Perhaps that’s why the county is noted for having the second highest poverty rate of all Michigan counties.


Fewer than 30,000 residents spread out over roughly 13,000 households populate this stretch of approximately 566 square miles. Many residents of rural Clare County went without broadband service until a couple of years ago, because high-speed Internet service providers had forecast a minimal probability for earning a reasonable return on investment due to the demographics and the location of the population centers in the area.


In the summer of 2009, a group of concerned citizens and elected officials from Clare County, incorporated communities of Clare and Harrison, and multiple townships initiated impromptu connectivity conversations that morphed into structured brainstorming meetings. Determined that government should only act as a catalyst for commercial enterprise, the township group hammered out an arrangement for a public/private partnership to approach the fulfillment of this need.


“It basically came down to a bunch of people that knew each other, trusted each other, that had common goals and desires,” said Steve Kingsbury, City of Clare finance director. “Each individual brought different things to the table and that’s how we got started.”


The original plan was to connect all the governmental entities with fiber and go wireless from there. That would create a portal of wider support for businesses that did not otherwise have service.


Around this time an ISP had shown interest in providing wireless service to the region and when approached by the township group, Jeff Hall, of ISP Management, said he would be up to taking on the topographical challenges of the area.


Each township bore the financial responsibility to erect strategically located towers and then allow ISP Management free access to the structure. In return, the plan called for ISP Management to provide free broadband service to Community Anchor Institutions.


Terry Holmes, senior technologist for Connected Nation, the parent organization of Connect Michigan, has been assisting the Clare County group by developing propagation maps that locate and optimize new fixed wireless transmission towers.


“It is an underlying theme with this group that there are no egos or personal interest that stand in their way of bringing broadband to their constituents,” said Holmes. “It is all about the betterment of their communities.”


“The lack of high structures and the area population configurations provide some significant challenges,” said Jeff Hall, president of ISP Management. “But this type of an arrangement is a win-win situation because it makes fiscal sense for the townships and it allows me to make a business case for providing service to an area where it was previously not viable.”


To date, a fiber presence has been developed in several of the governmental and Community Anchor Institution buildings of each of the communities involved. Three communications towers have been constructed and a fourth is currently being erected that will serve the entire eastern side of Clare County.


ISP Management entered into agreements with the townships with a recouping model where the provider can connect to the grid and, in turn, provide wireless Internet connectivity to as many residents as technologically possible. In exchange for the provider being on the tower to offer Internet service to local residents as a commercial product, ISP Management is carrying all the governmental traffic back to an access point on the tower where it is then picked up by the governmental grid.


“Everyone involved is humbly gratified at the progress that we have made in getting the governmental side of the network setup and running efficiently and in a fiscally sound manner while simultaneously providing Internet service to the unserved and underserved in the county,” Kingsbury said.


“The Clare County broadband group has made incredible progress to ensure residents, municipalities, and businesses have access to broadband,” said Eric Frederick, program manager for Connect Michigan. “We at Connect Michigan are excited to work with the group to help them ensure that their residents have access to the unlimited benefits of broadband availability and to link every community in Michigan to economic opportunity.”