Closing Dead Zones Without Radio Towers

With vast spreads of trees, the natural landscape of Ogemaw County, Michigan, is a large part of its appeal; however, that is also what makes it difficult to build radio towers, which transmit cellular signals and broadband over radio frequencies. Surrounding counties in northeast Michigan suffer the same dilemma, with a beautiful landscape that many seek to enjoy, but not while being cut off from the outside world. Ogemaw County and surrounding counties, with assistance from the Northeast Michigan Council of Governments (NEMCOG), are working to make radio transmission installation cheaper, easier, and less damaging to the environment by eliminating the need for towers. The vertical asset inventory currently in progress leverages existing structures like water towers, barns, grain elevators, and more, and shows potential service providers where radio transmission devices can be placed at a lower cost.

Last year, Ogemaw County sent out letters to over 800 properties, asking residents to assist in the area’s vertical asset inventory. Mapping and verification of the assets is still underway in Ogemaw County, and the initiative has expanded across northeast Michigan. All 11 counties in the Northeast Michigan Prosperity Region have conducted cursory inventories, with Ogemaw County receiving a Regional Prosperity Initiative (RPI) “mini-grant” from NEMCOG to complete a more detailed assessment. NEMCOG has awarded RPI mini-grants, between $1,000 and $10,000, to counties throughout the region conducting vertical assets inventories and encouraging residents and business owners to use online resources.

“High-speed Internet access has now become an essential piece of infrastructure necessary to attract or retain individuals desiring to live in this area and/or create a business or industry in the region,” a representative from NEMCOG said in a statement regarding the RPI grants. “The vertical assets inventory will provide data for private and public investment decisions, lowering the initial cost of efforts needed to identify potential mounting locations for infrastructure.”

Ogemaw County’s inventory goes more in-depth than the surrounding areas. The RPI grant will help to finish the project, and combine it with the surrounding counties’ inventories. “It’s about working together across county lines,” said Mandi Chasey, Director of Business and Economic Services for Ogemaw County. “[The vertical assets inventory] is by far the top priority; we need to get this done.”

David Glenn, Community Economic Development Planner at NEMCOG, lives in the area and struggles to get cell service at his home. “Trying to get a tower anywhere close to us is impossible because it’s just not worth the investment,” said Glenn. With vertical assets mapped across the county and across the region, radio towers won’t be necessary to fill in cellphone and broadband dead zones, reducing necessary investment to a fraction of the cost.

“The mini grants are a great way to spark projects that need help getting legs under them,” said Glenn. “It’s not a lot of money, but a lot of times, that’s all it takes.”

Learn more about this and other innovative solutions to broadband expansion in rural areas at www.connectmycommunity.org.

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