MI broadband chief: Only ‘one shot’ for universal broadband access

As a two-peninsula state, Michigan has broadband accessibility challenges others states may not have, Eric Frederick, chief connectivity officer at the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office (MIHI), told Fierce Telecom. Thus, it’s being careful to make the most of its Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) allocation, which is approximately $1.56 billion.

“We’re taking a very measured and calculated approach to BEAD…making sure the investment that is here is going to be able to truly achieve universal availability,” Frederick said in an interview. “We’re taking a very measured approach and making sure we get it right the first time, because we only have one shot.”

As for hurdles to Michigan broadband deployment, he pointed to geography – as it’s challenging to connect all locations “when we’re not one contiguous piece” – and winter weather that shortens the construction season, an issue neighboring state Minnesota also faces.

Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for instance, is “much more remote” than the Lower Peninsula and contains lots of state and federal forested land. The southern part of the state has a higher population density but it also has its share of “pockets of unserved [locations] that are fairly agricultural in nature.”

“I think the pockets in Southern Michigan are going to be easier to reach because they’re a little bit more scattered and isolated,” Frederick said. “But when I think about the large swaths of the state, where we have unserved and underserved, it’s definitely the tip of the Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula too.”

Long winters means providers must do “a lot of planning” to get work done in a shortened construction season, which generally lasts from June to the end of October.

“They are making sure all of their designs are in place. They’re getting all their permits lined up ahead of time,” he explained.

Solidifying subgrants

Frederick thinks Michigan’s BEAD allocation will be enough to achieve universal broadband coverage, but the state will have to be “very efficient and creative about how we implement it.” Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently noted that the state's BEAD allocation will help it cover more than 210,000 un- and underserved locations there. 

Part of Michigan's plan includes ensuring subgrant programs can effectively reach high-cost locations in the state.

“We can’t just let it be a free-for-all grant program where ISPs and others tell us where they want to serve because we won’t get everywhere,” he said. “Because there’s definitely locations that are less desirable than others to build to because they’re so remote.”

A well-designed subgrant BEAD program would be one in which “every location in the state that needs services is part of an application” by the time application windows close. It will involve maximizing both federal and private funds, “because we know there’s lots of private sector interest in this space,” Frederick added.

Like other states, Michigan is currently working on an initial BEAD proposal, which must be submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by the end of the year. Frederick said the state is also drafting its five-year action plan, which is due August 22.

He expects the BEAD challenge process to kick off in Q1 2024, using data from the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) national broadband map, the next version of which will be released in November.

With that timeframe in mind, construction likely won’t start until mid-2025.

“We’re trying to be very cautious with it, because a year is not a whole lot of time to run sequential grant rounds,” Frederick said. “We could probably get two grant rounds within a year that are sequential.”

“That’s why we’re trying to be smart about thinking about how we do concurrent grant programs to get to universal availability. So we’re not running one after another, they’re running concurrently,” he concluded.