Now, more than ever, broadband Internet is an essential and crucial service to those who live, learn and work in our Michigan communities. Ottawa County has developed a 4-phase digital inclusion strategy to help bridge the digital divide in their region. As part of this initiative, the Ottawa County Broadband Internet Steering Committee has engaged with the Michigan Moonshot to conduct a survey that seeks to understand the challenges of access, affordability, and digital literacy in the community.
Two members of the Steering Committee, Paul Sachs, the director of planning and performance improvement for Ottawa County, and Doug Weber, president of Urban Wireless Solutions and a consultant to Ottawa County discuss the goals of this survey project and long-term objectives to lessen digital inequalities.
Q: Can you provide a history and formation of the digital inclusion initiative for the county?
Paul: Our history is somewhat complicated. We are embarking on a complex solution to address our inequities. In the past, Ottawa learned that carriers’ business models made it hard to offer services in some parts of our county. As connectivity needs grew, discussions began to explore potential partnerships and solutions for community success. This resulted in the development of our 4-phase digital inclusion strategy Learn about the strategy here: https://www.miottawa.org/Departments/Planning/broadband.htm#digitalInclusion
Our strategy consists of the 4 phases: data collection, analysis, intermediary solutions deployment, and ongoing transformation, with data collection as the first. The data collection phase is critical since it drives the bus for the next steps by providing real figures to work with when creating our solutions for Ottawa.
Q: How were Broadband Steering Committee members chosen?
Paul: As the Digital Inclusion Strategy was developed, the four phases emerged. The first strategy is data collection, which we need to inform solutions planning. We created a committee specific around data collection and this committee is a large cross-section of stakeholders who are impacted by inequities. It is made up of economic development representation, farm bureau, education representatives, health care industry, local business leaders, local units of government, and a handful of others. The committee was assembled in this manner because of the need to address the inequities across these industries with people who are familiar with their constituencies’ needs and have the passion, resources, and connections to drive this effort beyond phase 1.
Q: Doug, how are you involved in this effort?
Doug: I developed a relationship 10 or 11 years ago with the County when initial discussions about wireless coverage expansion began. During this time, I was employed by Verizon. Following this, I started Urban Wireless Solutions, with the goal of supporting communities in their efforts to bolster wireless connectivity in their areas. My colleagues at KLA Laboratories and I have become involved in assisting Ottawa to create affordable, accessible connectivity.
Q: Of the residents who are hypothesized to be underserved, who are the target populations that you will try to reach that you may anticipate are underserved today?
Paul: From the accessibility perspectives-rural townships. Ottawa has 17 townships total, nearly half of which are unserved rural areas. From the affordability perspective – this issue crosses all communities. When talking with school leaders, for example, they know families have access but may not be able to connect because of cost. And with everyone at home using video now, it becomes expensive to get the service to that capacity needed.
Doug: Part of the data collection initiative is understanding how citizens use the internet, and how that data will be used to drive the model that is adopted. Digital literacy is also critical – people need to know how to use their equipment to get the maximum value out of their network.
Q: After the data is collected, and your hypothesis is validated, what comes next?
Paul: The data that is collected will be used to inform solutions designs for phase 2. KLA Labs will be supporting this part of the project.
Doug: Feasibility is analyzed to make sure the models are possible in Ottawa. Then an engineering model will be developed that works for the community. Our role here is to create collaborative public/private solutions to provide maximum coverage and access. We believe the data from the survey will show there is a large need and will make it attractive for the ISPs to do business here.
Q: Any last words to residents/champions?
Paul: I’d like to stress that the survey data is so critical to informing the decisions for our county. The more data available, the more depth we have of understanding the issues and creating solutions.
The survey is not just about who does and doesn’t have access, it’s multifaceted to help us understand the community’s uses of the internet, digital literacy and affordability. A lot of investment goes into technology and also into programs that help the community leverage the internet. It’s not just about who has the wiring, but ensuring that our residents are capable of getting the most out of it as well.
Q: Where can someone go to learn more about the digital inclusion strategy and phases?
Paul: There is a robust webpage that lays out the digital inclusion strategies, where we’ve been, our challenges, and where we plan to go. Miottawa.org/broadband