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Making Rural Broadband Possible Through Agricultural Assets

Ogemaw County, Michigan is taking a creative approach to expanding broadband infrastructure in the area, combining agricultural assets with broadband technology. By identifying structures that can be used as vertical assets transmitting wireless broadband frequencies, Ogemaw is making a map of low-cost, easy-access broadband potential.

Wireless Internet signals through radio frequencies allow smartphones, laptops, and other devices to access the Internet without the need to install underground cables. To convey the signal properly, the transmission devices must be elevated above trees, buildings, and other obstructions, optimally 75 feet or higher above the ground. While cellular towers are built to transmit radio signals, with frequencies including cell signals and wireless Internet transmissions, building these towers necessitates a large investment for Internet service providers and cell carriers. Many rural areas with populations spaced over hundreds of acres of farmland or forest — such as Ogemaw County and many other areas in Northern Michigan — do not display the concentrated demand that would support the investment. However, many rural structures already exist that are 75 feet high or taller, such as barns, silos, and grain elevators. With proper installation, these structures may be used in lieu of cell towers, making wireless broadband transmission possible at a fraction of the expense.

Mapping these structures and making them available for use with transmitting hardware is the next step. Ogemaw County is asking their rural residents to help them take a vertical asset inventory through a mailing campaign which will reach over 300 homes and 800 properties with potential vertical assets.

“Because of the large number of agricultural properties, this could be the solution for getting broadband in several of our underserved areas,” said Mandi Chasey, Director of the Ogemaw County Economic Development Corporation (EDC). Ogemaw County is a certified Connected community through Connect Michigan, and this initiative works to build on specific projects identified through certification. Chasey emphasized that vertical asset mapping does not immediately translate into broadband availability, but rather encourages ISPs to consider placing hardware in areas they otherwise may not consider. Using existing structures not only eliminates the need for substantial investment, but also makes coverage possible without breaking up the natural landscape. “We live in a beautiful environment,” said Chasey. “Why not use the structures that we already have?”

The deadline to respond to the letter is July 15, at which point Chasey and the EDC hope to use substantial responses to create a map of vertical assets, which can then be passed on to local and national ISPs who wish to place broadband in the area. Bringing broadband technology to silos, barns, and grain elevators will be a new experience for many ISPs, and successful installation may open up more rural areas to broadband without the need for additional towers, both in rural Michigan and across the nation.

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