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While Livingston County needs broadband, it gets petty politics, culture wars instead

We stand at a technological fork in the road. The choice, when you get down to it, is whether we cobble together a patchwork network on geezer technology — a move that will cost us in terms of speed, accountability, and lifespan — or whether we zoom gladly into the fiber future.

While Wes Nakagiri, chair of the Livingston County Board of Commissioners, spends his time stirring silly stew, conjuring up visions of non-existent vaccine passports and decrying the wisdom of making our beloved Metroparks system welcoming for everyone, Livingston County is no closer to getting broadband access to all its residents.

Apparently, the chair of the county board would rather spend his time tilting at vaccine passports and DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) programs that, among other things, help create an atmosphere welcoming to all people, and promote inclusion for the disabled.

Want examples of recent diversity, equity and inclusion work right here in Livingston County?

• We recently spotlighted the incredible efforts of the Howell High School Senior Survivors, who raised a gobsmacking amount of money — over $220,000 — to build the inclusive Senior Survivor Playground at the Genoa Township Park. You can read all about Howell High School’s annual program and these incredible teens here.

• We also recently spotlighted the award-winning Pinckney Community Gardens project, which has two wheelchair-accessible beds, and wheelchair-friendly pathways.

I am guessing Nakagiri supports people in wheelchairs being part of the community, so the stink he’s raising about DEI means that he doesn’t really understand what equity and inclusion means. If that’s the case, he shouldn’t be chair of the county board; and if he understands that part of it and he’s against it, then he shouldn’t be chair of the county board.

This is not an either-or. If you feel people in wheelchairs should have equity in accessibility, and should be included in the fabric of our community, then you support DEI. If you don’t support DEI, then you need to explain that to the people in our community who are differently-abled, or who have children who are.

Plain and simple: as Nakagiri fiddles about culture wars, Livingston County burns for high-speed fiber-optic broadband, the one thing on which all of us — Democrats, Republicans, Independents, political agnostics — can easily agree.

Monday’s county board meeting featured a parade of call-to-the-public people thanking Nakagiri for his leadership against the fever-dream of vaccine passports and DEI. Broadband wasn’t even on the agenda.

It’s easy to play politics to remove someone from the Metroparks board like longtime Livingston County resident and public servant Steve Williams (who has strong conservative bona fides, as well as the support of some on the county board) and instead try to install someone who has just moved to the county, has never been to a Metroparks meeting, but whose views apparently mesh closely with Nakagiri’s. (This time-sucking kerfuffle is taking place because Nakagari has a problem with Williams’ support for DEI instruction for Metroparks employees.)

It’s much harder to lead a community forward.

You can read all about Monday’s goofy county board meeting, which revolved mostly around Nakagiri’s attempt to remove Williams, through WHMI’s excellent reporting. Consider this paragraph from WHMI’s story: “Commissioner Kate Lawrence also supported (Steve) Williams and said sometimes they have to ‘think outside of Livingston County’ at the whole of what the Metroparks encompass. She quizzed (Tami) Carlone (Nakagiri’s pick) what possessed her to apply for the seat, and asked if she had ever been to a Metroparks meeting. Carlone said she was approached by Nakagiri, who did a ‘bunch of research’ and was not happy with Williams. She said he spoke his concerns and she said she knew then ‘why he called me.’ Carlone said she had never been to a Metroparks meeting but she feels she has the skills to represent the taxpayers of Livingston County well there.”

If only Nakagiri skipped the culture wars; if only he channeled the energy he’s spending in his quest to replace the knowledgeable and capable Steve Williams on the Metroparks board into something of value for the entire community.

That something? Broadband.

The internet in Livingston County — if you’re lucky enough to have access — can really, really suck at times, like when you’re in a Zoom meeting and your kid is in class upstairs, or when it takes more buffer breaks than a toddler when you’re pandemic-binging “The Queen’s Gambit.” And this is me complaining when I live in downtown Howell, an area in which internet should be rocking and rolling.

I actually feel guilty about complaining because of the internet horror stories I’ve heard from people who live in Livingston County’s more rural areas, where there is even crappier or non-existent access. After 15 months of working and learning from home, we all know the limitations of our patchwork system.

Livingston County itself has $37.2 MILLION in stimulus funds in its hot hands that can be spent on broadband. You can read my post about that by clicking here.

Take the county’s stimulus dollars, add them to what the rest of Livingston County is getting, and it adds up to $56.2 MILLION in the community right now, all of which can be spent on broadband.

I wanted to know the county’s vision for what will likely be an historic investment in Livingston County infrastructure, so I reached out. Commissioner Mitchell Zajac replied, and said the pandemic showed that the “one hurdle to learning and to the economy in Livingston County is the missing access to broadband internet.”

Zajac is absolutely right.

And there are lots of people in Livingston County who knew that a decade ago, when — in the midst of the Great Recession — hundreds of community movers and shakers got together to create a blueprint for “increased and sustainable prosperity of the Livingston County area,” the result of which was “Advantage Livingston: A Plan for Thriving Together in the New Economy.”

I know the plan well because I wrote it.

One goal of Advantage Livingston was to “become wireless countywide.”

The question now is the same as it was then: How do we accomplish this vital goal?

Zajac favors a “network of broadband access lines throughout the entire county,” which feels to me like a quick and cost-effective way of spreading out to the hinterlands more of the mediocre system we currently have.

I, on the other hand, favor a big and bold approach in which the county jumps into the future and constructs a totally fiber-optic system throughout the county.

What a shame it would be to settle for ho-hum when we could instead create a robust network to serve both residents and the business community alike, and aid in attracting the high-tech jobs Advantage Livingston identified a decade ago as being crucial to our future economic health.

Before we commit to a patchwork of a little of this and a little of that, built on a foundation of various carriers via cable, satellite, copper wiring, etc., we’d be foolish not to consider whether creating a state-of-the-art, high-speed, fiber-optic broadband would better serve Livingston County with its ability to move huge chunks of data at lightning speed, and its extended lifespan.

We stand at a technological fork in the road. The choice, when you get down to it, is whether we cobble together a patchwork network on geezer technology — a move that will cost us in terms of speed, accountability, and lifespan — or whether we zoom gladly into the fiber future.

Yeah, it will take a lot of money. If we want a great system, we’ll have to pay for it. Consider that well over $1M of our tax dollars go to the Livingston County Airport each and every year, and how many of us keep our planes there?

We stand at the precipice of actually creating something that touches and enhances all our lives: from all our communication to our education to our public safety to our entire business community. Let’s face facts: Internet access has become a basic human need. And the better our internet, the better our lives, and the more attractive we are to residents and businesses alike.

And we’ve got over $56 MILLION to get started.

So, let’s start figuring out how best to spend it. Let’s establish a blue-ribbon committee of people from all corners of the community with various specialties — from regular users to businesses to elected officials to IT and economic development specialists — to study and debate how best to deploy the stimulus funds to get Livingston County the broadband system it wants and needs.

Maybe we’ll decide to create a state-of-the-art system instead of building on the ho-hum service a lot of us have right now. It’s a decision that will cost more money, maybe more money than we have at present, but consider that Livingston County pays additional millages for EMS and Veterans Services; why not a five-year millage to construct a state-of-the-art, fiber-optic, broadband network to ensure access to every single household and business in Livingston County? We can throw that $56 MILLION in stimulus funds at it, and add in whatever else comes our way when a federal infrastructure bill passes. And then we pay for access — just like we do now — except we’d be getting a whole lot more for what I think will be a much better price.

I have seen the future, and it is high-speed, fiber optic broadband.

For the record, I also reached out to Chairman Nakagiri about his vision for broadband, but he has yet to respond. (The snarky side of me wonders whether I should have instead asked about vaccine passports in Livingston County.)

Also, for the record, another goal from the Advantage Livingston report: Create a welcoming environment that includes cultural diversity. Past perception has been that Livingston County is not welcoming of minorities. Through the efforts of many, that perception has been changing.

You can also find some fascinating information on community broadband here.

You can read the Advantage Livingston plan below.

AdvantageLivingston

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Journalist Maria Stuart worked at The Livingston County Press/Livingston County Daily Press & Argus as a reporter, editor and managing editor from 1990-2009. These days, she runs The Livingston Post.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you for the informative article. In my albeit limited experience with the Livingston County Boatd of Commissioners they do not respond to public outcry readily or well. I just am left wondering what can be done outside of calling for removal of Nakagiri.

  2. I remember Advantage Livingston well – being on the placemaking committee that investigated expanding broadband, among other things. The committee had most of the township supervisors on it and really put decision makers together. Shame it lost leadership and focus.

  3. Hello Maria. Nice article. Ironically, increased broadband access throughout Livingston County was one of my focus areas as a County Commissioner. I pushed for allowing our county IT department and emergency fiber optic network to work with LESA and the Pinckney Community Schools, which benefited both organizations greatly. I went all the way up the Charter Communications corporate ladder to their St. Louis headquarters trying to get them to expand their Livingston County network only to find that Michigan law doesn’t give any real leverage to townships once they sign the cable contract. I applaud you for keeping up the pressure, but don’t forget to include our legislators because some changes to the Michigan communications laws would be very helpful.

  4. Unadilla Township is in need of broadband we are willing to throw our stimulus money into the pot to work with the county towards the goal of reaching all our residents! I agree now is the time to boldly go forward. Our kids have suffered academically this past two years! The majority of our township has non existent internet! Time to use that money for the good of all not more roundabouts in high traffic areas where it seems our money continually goes!
    Linda Topping

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