County looks at broadband program
FAIRMONT– During its meeting on Jan. 17, the Martin County Board of Commissioners moved forward with plans for a grant program to help fund broadband development in rural Martin County. The program would use federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, passed in 2021, to help cover the cost of last mile broadband installation in parts of the county that are currently unserved or underserved by existing broadband infrastructure.
“Our goal is to make sure every household in Martin County has access to high speed broadband,” said Joshua Shuetz, a community and business development specialist who works with the county.
In the current form of the proposal the county would commit $1.5 million to cover up to half the cost of broadband improvements in parts of the county where wired download speeds are less than 100 mbps and upload speeds are less than 20 mbps. Because the program would cover up to half the cost of broadband projects, it’s expected to stimulate at least twice this amount in broadband improvements.
The improvements would be much needed in an increasingly digital world.
“Nowadays broadband is a need. If you’re doing distance learning like we did during the pandemic and you’re not able to log on and your internet speeds can’t handle a Zoom class you may have to go to town and go to the public libraries to do your classes. Who knows what the time limits may be, what the wait times may be and if the weather’s really bad can you do that?,” said Schuetz.
While most cities in Martin County such as Fairmont, Sherburn, Granada, Truman and Trimont already have broadband, access rapidly drops off outside of city limits. Many people may have an internet cable that runs near their homes but have not yet been connected to their service providers.
“There might be someone out in the country who has fiber running close to them but it could be as little as a half mile or a quarter mile and it’s not to their house so they got nothing. Last mile tends to be the most expensive so that’s why we’re so laser focused on that,” said Schuetz.
While a future state or federal program could provide more assistance to the remainder of the county Schuetz highlighted the importance of local entities taking the first steps towards improving broadband access.
“If you look at communities across rural America the ones that do best are those that are proactive in trying to match state and federal stories with local ones,” said Schuetz.
Because no applications have been submitted yet it is currently not possible to estimate how many businesses and households could be connected using these funds, but the commissioners plan to open grant applications in the next two months.
Once applications are received they will be examined using a variety of criteria with emphasis on the number of people a proposed project would serve, the degree of improvement over existing infrastructure and the applicants demonstrated readiness to complete and sustain their project. The date of the initial review has yet to be determined.