By Mike Kruzman /

Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin talked with the Livingston County Board of Commissioners about using some of their forthcoming federal dollars on improving broadband internet access to all residents.

The 8th District Democrat from Holly met with Commissioners in person during their meeting, Monday evening. She said that since being elected, one of the top three issues she’s heard about from Livingston County residents is a need for better high-speed internet. The pandemic served to shine a brighter light on that need as she reported hearing of students needing to drive to business parking lots for their internet; hundreds of businesses and employees who couldn’t work online; and patients, including veterans, who wanted to use telemedicine but couldn’t due to a lack of access.

A relief package signed in March is bringing money for infrastructure needs to local municipalities and county governments. Livingston County is receiving $37.2-million. Slotkin asked commissioners to explore options at making the internet not just accessible for all, but also affordable. She compared bringing universal broadband now to the decision in the 1930s that provided electricity to rural America, calling this a once-in-a-generation chance.

Local municipalities are all receiving their own aid, separate from the county. Slotkin said that they could invest in better broadband themselves, but it wouldn’t be as efficient as the county doing it, calling the county the “market of scale.”

Slokin said any serious progress would begin with properly mapping the county’s internet accessibility to understand the depth of the problem and where dead zones are. After that, she said the focus should turn to not just making it accessible, but also affordable.

Commissioners spoke support to the importance of broadband internet, but there were still concerns. Brenda Plank said she is hearing from her constituents that the money would be better applied elsewhere, like with EMS. Plank and Jay Gross both noted how estimates from the county’s IT department put the cost of bringing a project like this to reality would be in the $70-million range, nearly twice what the county is receiving.

Slotkin said she hadn’t seen that number and said that the county could look at it like a public utility where they provided every dollar, but that’s not how most other communities are doing it. Many that are working on a program like this are using public-private partnerships. She explained that a provider doesn’t go into every uncovered corner because it doesn’t get them money, But what they find with a public-private partnership is that if the municipality throws in some money, and the provider throws in some money, suddenly it becomes more economically viable for the provider to lay high-speed cables. Slotkin said the figures she has seen are significantly less because you are partnering with a company that puts in at least half. She said there are a lot of ways to skin a cat, and until you sit down with the providers it is hard to know what you’re looking at.

Commissioner Doug Helzerman said he was completely for broadband but also worried about the inflation this influx of money was going to cause. He also took the comparison to electrify the country in the 1930s and commented on the modern-day nuances of who can put what on telephone poles and how it is rented out. He said he felt there could be problems with the laws and said he felt the state needs to help iron out some of those things out to bring the cost down. He said he felt that obviously counties have a part in this, but he thinks it is more of a state and federal issue.

Slotkin quipped that in terms of thinking the feds should handle this, she feels in her experience that “Livingston County really likes local control.” On a more serious note, she said that while they can supply the money, getting at the small corners of these communities is what the feds need help with, and so they look locally for that.

Commissioner Mitchell Zajac said he is passionate about this topic and said that they are taking steps. He said they are looking into mapping the county and have begun exploring potential partners. He pointed to a recent trip to Traverse City where the city provides internet as a utility to 450 households. Zajac said the city is realizing it’s more expensive than they thought, and that in his view, this is not an option.

Slotkin was asked by Commissioner Gross if there was a potential for more funding from Washington. Slotkin said that on Monday they will start negotiations on a bipartisan package that could set aside another $65-billion for broadband alone. She said she expects to be voting on it by the first week of August.