Farmington-area councils prepare to hear broadband task force presentation

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published January 16, 2021

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FARMINGTON/HILLS — Priorities for the Farmington and Farmington Hills city councils may have shifted last year with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but now that a full assessment has been compiled by the Broadband Task Force’s consultant, both council bodies are gearing up to re-examine the feasibility of bringing citywide broadband to each community.

The two councils are scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Jan. 25 to hear a presentation of the consultant’s findings.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa, of Farmington, who sits as the Farmington liaison on the task force, said the report will detail each city’s individual or collective options for building the infrastructure necessary, getting providers onto the network, how services would be implemented for businesses and households, and the potential costs to implement.

“The intent is to present a packet of information that gives elected officials, people who are not technology or network professionals, a sense of what it takes to do it. Is it feasible, yes or no? If (we) decide to go for it, this is our current estimate of how much effort, costs and time (it would take),” LaRussa said.

Farmington Hills Mayor Vicki Barnett said she’s been excited about the potential for a citywide broadband network since the late former Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson discussed his Wireless Oakland program. She said municipal broadband has the potential to increase the city’s overall stock in many areas, including home sales and marketability.

“With the way people are changing how and where they work, this is something we all have to take into consideration to make sure our city remains economically viable in the long term,” Barnett said. “What I’m looking at is not what we need today, but what we need tomorrow, and how we’re going to keep the city vital. … We have to be as forward thinking as we can be.”

LaRussa agreed that an investment in municipal broadband has the potential to make Farmington a more desirable community to live in and enhance the services it can provide.

As many office-bound workers took retreat at their own homes over the last year to shield themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for accessible, community-wide, high-speed internet became more apparent than ever, LaRussa said.

“This crisis has completely exposed that people are not using less internet. If anything, they’re using more internet, and this type of infrastructure is long past due for our residents and business owners,” he said. “I think the research that’s been done gives us a very good fulcrum to start to leverage that into action for both cities.”

After council members from each body hear the task force’s presentation, LaRussa said, there are likely three distinct steps, or decisions, the councils will need to make to move forward.

Both cities, he said, will need to first make the decision if municipal broadband is something they want to pursue at all. If so, he believes the task force should be transformed into a more permanent standing committee able to continue to tackle the complex issues that may arise along the deliberation and implementation processes. Both councils will also “need to wrestle with the price tag and models for financing,” he said, and decide if the economics make sense, as well as if they will pursue it jointly or separately.

Once those two questions have been answered, LaRussa believes there’s a lot of public education that needs to be done to ensure people are in support of their tax dollars being used for the project.

“I think we need to listen to residents and our business owners, and ask if there’s a need here, or if they’re satisfied. I think the research says, clearly no, but I do feel there’s public engagement that needs to happen.”

Both LaRussa and Barnett have their fears that not implementing this project down the road could be costly to each city’s overall public health.

“I think the future for Farmington is we have to invest in our own infrastructure,” LaRussa said. “Farmington is finding itself more like these more rural areas that can’t get internet service, because they’re too remote, too small, or there’s not enough of a market to warrant investment. … I’m fearful we’ll get left behind.”

Barnett’s concerns stem from wanting to ensure access to the internet and deployment speeds are equal across the community, from the low-income housing areas to the wealthiest. She believes it’s paramount that the cities find a way to drop costs to allow all residents to participate in the growing economy.

“This is not a technology that’s not required anymore. It certainly is more relied on by everybody that we ever thought possible,” she said. “The requirement for high-speed internet and broadband connectivity is not a wish on your list, it’s a must have on your list. We need to be cognizant of that as we move forward.”

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