Informational Update from the Calhoun County Broadband Task Force

Informational Update from the Calhoun County Broadband Task Force

Broadband Task Force | Marshall, MI – Last summer, Calhoun County Government promoted a countywide survey asking residents to answer questions and take an internet speed test to gauge access to the internet in Calhoun County. This survey was initiated by the Calhoun County Broadband Task Force, which was formed in May 2021, and conducted by the Merit Network, a statewide organization that studies broadband access. The survey was a first step in really understanding the digital divide in Calhoun County. By understanding this divide with statistical analysis, we can better assess ways to fix it.

Information is shared below about the results of this survey. Broadband Task Force members have been brought up to speed on these results and are encouraged to share them widely with their networks, so that we can level-set with the public and various stakeholders about the vastness of the digital divide in our county and the negative effects for all residents, as a result.

Technically, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has data about which parts of the country have access to the internet and which don’t. Studies have found this data isn’t entirely accurate: Their methods for assessing access are generalized by census track and presumes access where sometimes there isn’t.

The results of this survey confirmed what anecdotal evidence told us: There are far more people in Calhoun County without access to reliable internet than what the FCC data says. The reason why this discrepancy is important to understand is because FCC data is used by state and federal agencies for determining how to expand broadband infrastructure.

Thank you to everyone who took the broadband survey in 2021 and those who helped us spread the word about it. This data collection was invaluable in helping us understand the true story of broadband internet in Calhoun County.

The Merit Results:

Over the course of six months, we received 2,240 eligible survey responses. Of those, 1,287 indicated they had some service and 953 indicated they had no internet at home. Additionally, using Ookla data as well, we have speed test data from 1,502 households.

The data found that all areas within Calhoun County lack access to the internet in some capacity, but the highest density of broadband access is in Battle Creek—which makes sense because it’s our highest populated area. Of those who self-identified as not having access to the internet, the majority said it was because they simply do not have access at their address, not because they do not wish to have internet. 23% of those who don’t have internet say that even if they had access at their address, cost would be prohibitive. Of the 2,240 responses, the Merit data found that 39% of households do not have access to the internet. This is significantly different than FCC data, which says that only 4% of households in Calhoun do not have access. The map on the left shows access based on survey results, and the map on the right shows what FCC says access is like in Calhoun.

The speed tests allow us to see whether one’s internet service is at the speeds necessary for general operation. For instance, the FCC says that adequate internet access for a household is speeds of 25 Mbps for downloading and 3 Mbps for uploading. In Calhoun County, 46% of households do have access at or above this speed, according to the Merit data. Notably, of that 46%, Merit further breaks down that 24% at that speed do not have children in the household, and 22% do. This is significant because fewer households with children have reliable internet speeds, particularly with virtual learning becomes more common. The Merit data found that 55% of households do not have access at these speeds. The graph below visualizes the comparison between FCC and Merit data at the 25/3 Mbps speeds.

However, industry experts, as well as the US Congress, feel that the 25/3 Mbps speeds are not efficient, and have set their own standards of 100 Mbps download/20 Mbps upload. FCC data says that 68% of households in Calhoun have access at this speed. Merit data suggests that only 9% of households have access at this speed. This is a vast discrepancy, which can be seen in the graphs below.

Certainly the technical aspect of who has access and who does not, and whether they are at adequate speeds, is critical information. But the Merit data also studied affordability of the options that exist and whether residents are satisfied with these options. Overall, 37% of residents who responded were satisfied with their internet service provider options, 24% were neutral, and 40% were dissatisfied. Of those who did not have access at their homes, 69% said that they would be willing to pay between $26-100 for service. This bar graph also shows that 23% of respondents who did not have access said that the price of service is too high.

This data will be used in the next steps of the Broadband Task Force’s work. We seek to answer the question, What is the best way to ensure reliable and affordable access to the internet for all residents of Calhoun County? Options will be explored in a contract with a company called CTC, which will develop a feasibility study and cost benefit analysis in the next 6-12 months. In future communications like this one, we will share more information about what options there are and the benefits and challenges associated with them.

Additional materials: