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Recent News // Is broadband Internet a 'basic utility?' Voters consider high-speed tax

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

By Matt Vande Bunte | mvandebu@mlive.com
Access the full article:  http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2016/05/is_broadband_internet_a_basic.html
 

LAKETOWN TOWNSHIP, MI – Not all of the 2,800 households in this community that covers 22 square miles along Lake Michigan have access to high-speed Internet service.

Cable broadband is available in the northern part of the township that borders Ottawa County, near the city of Holland, and in a southern section north of Saugatuck. In between, a swath of land goes largely unserved by the private sector.

Voters on Tuesday, May 3, will consider taxing themselves to build publicly-owned fiber optic Internet infrastructure. The 1.6-mill, 16-year levy would cost the owner of a $200,000 house about $165 annually to pay for the $8.7 million network.

"It's a little bit like basic utilities were 100 years ago," said David Slikkers, a spokesman for the Fiber Optic Yes! Committee advocating passage of Tuesday's ballot proposal. "I do think (broadband Internet) is a basic expectation today. It's become a standard way of life."

Laketown is asking voters to fund an $8.7 million bond to pay for a fiber optic network. The township would contract with a private Internet service provider to operate the network.

The network, which is expected to offer speeds of 100 to 120 megabits per second for a monthly fee of $25 to $40, could be ready in a year, officials estimate.

Residents would not be required to connect to the system.

There's social media banter both in support and opposition to the tax. Opponents are concerned that the plan has not been fully vetted, that not all residents want or need faster Internet service, and that the public could be left holding the bag if the network doesn't attract enough users.

Unlike some municipal networks that charge a utility fee, Laketown proposes a property tax. Higher-value properties may end up paying more in tax than in Internet fees. But all residents will benefit from increased property values, Township Manager Al Meshkin said.

"Just by having fiber go past your house increases property values by 3.1 percent," he said. "Everybody gets a benefit out of this. Those who don't have anything, their benefit is obvious: They get service.

"Some people don't need as much connectivity, that's true, but that's changing all the time."

All of Laketown Township has access to Internet service as fast as 10 megabits per second, according to Connect Michigan, a nonprofit that monitors broadband access around the state. But not all of the township can get service as fast as 25 megabits per second, for example.

A publicly-funded, privately-operated model is "becoming a very popular way of getting infrastructure out there," said Eric Frederick, Connect Michigan's executive director.

"The city builds the infrastructure it wants and works with a private carrier to operate it," he said. "If (the private carrier) can get rid of some of that upfront cost (of building a network) it makes it easier for them to expand."