Assessing access: Initiative to explore area’s connectivity

HOUGHTON – When the Regional Prosperity Initiative (RPI) received continued funding from the Western U.P. Planning and Development Region (WUPPDR) for a number of specific priority projects, one of the projects was continuing broadband connectivity, researching and planning to address deficiencies in access to Internet service throughout the region.

Funding for the project began last year. Access to broadband internet is considered an integral part of a community’s infrastructure for economic development, said Erik Powers, WUPPDR regional planner. “In this case, with the broadband portion, it really has become a facet of the infrastructure, to go along with water lines and things like that,” he said.

The major goal of planning regions is to identify ways to bring economic development into areas, particularly geographically isolated regions like the western U.P.

“Getting people to fully understand the effect that (broadband) has,” Powers said, “and the importance it carries – as far as bringing economic development into an area for a better economy in general – I mean, businesses aren’t going to move up here if that infrastructure’s not there.”

With funding received last year, RPI identified areas of concern and need and “broadband access in a region identified as lacking,” Powers said.

This year, RPI has partnered with Connect Michigan, which is a program through the Michigan Public Service Commission.

“Their task is to go around, county by county, and help either the county, people or an organization like ours work with people in the community, and kind of do an inventory, or look at what’s already existing as far as infrastructure goes,” he said.

With the funding last year, RPI was able to conduct studies in three of the six western counties within Region 13, better known as WUPPDR.

“We’ve completed Houghton, Keweenaw, and Gogebic counties,” Powers said. “So, this year, under this new round of RPI funding, we will be working completing Baraga, Iron, and Ontonagon counties.”

The Broadband Connectivity project contains a number of criteria listed by Michigan to be met in order for a community to meet with standards set by the state.

“Houghton County is a certified, connected community as per Michigan standards,” Powers said. “A lot of people ask, ‘Well, what does that do? What does that bring?’ There is no broadband prize, so to speak, but it makes it a lot more attractive to people moving up here.”