GRAND RAPIDS, MI — About 33,100, or roughly 13.7%, of all households in Kent County don’t have an internet subscription, according to estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of those households without internet, roughly 36% of them have incomes of $20,000 or less.
With a pandemic that has forced many online to work, learn, socialize and more, Kent County leaders want to start breaking down the barriers hindering high-speed internet access to all in the county.
“The pandemic has made it clear: access to broadband internet service can no longer be considered ‘optional’ for residents of Kent County,” said Kent County Board Chair Mandy Bolter. “For almost a year, thousands of our residents have worked from home, our children have attended school online, and patients have relied on telehealth services for critical medical and behavioral health appointments.
“We need everyone in Kent County to have access to those opportunities through a quality broadband network.”
This week, Kent County officials announced the formation of a subcommittee tasked with examining existing broadband coverage in the county, what barriers to broadband internet access are present and how to fund strategies to break down those barriers.
Along with Kent County elected leaders, multiple business and communications representatives will sit on the panel.
The group will begin their work in March and provide a progress report to the full Board of Commissioners at the end of the year. The work may extend into 2022, depending on the progress and recommendations made.
One of the goals of the subcommittee is to get an updated picture of broadband needs in the county to meet the demands of work, school and more.
One “significant barrier” to broadband access, according to county staff, is the cost of installation in areas of the county that are less dense and have fewer households to pay for internet service.
Other barriers include local regulations and broadband provider requirements that make internet infrastructure challenging and costly to achieve.
Some preliminary strategies to be examined include identifying multiple funding sources, be it federal, state or local, to make investments that significantly reduce the gaps in broadband service across the county.
Others include studying the feasibility of creating an authority composed of local government units that could work to implement strategies and administer funding to service gaps over time.
“There are many roadblocks we have to take into consideration when addressing the need for broadband throughout the County,” said Kent County Commissioner Michelle McCloud. “Our solutions will have to be creative and we will have to tap into the skill set of each subcommittee member.”
In addition to Kent County elected leaders and staff, representatives from AT&T, Charter Communications, Vergennes Broadband, Comcast, Switch data center and The Right Place economic development organization will also sit on the panel.
Kent County Commissioner Ben Greene will chair the committee.
In neighboring Ottawa County, leaders have also been examining and working to address gaps in broadband service across the county.
The county, in January, began seeking bids bids from companies to collect data data and analyze broadband needs in the county.