High speed Internet isn’t just a convenience for families anymore, it’s a necessity. We do banking, shopping, and homework online; we pay bills and work from home. Some of us attend school online and others telecommute. Our access to high-speed Internet allows us to manage our lives in a world that is increasingly dependent on the Internet.

For businesses, even more is at stake. Businesses need broadband — that is, any Internet connection that is “always on and faster than traditional dial-up access,” usually with unlimited usage — to compete in a marketplace that is truly global. Faster connection speeds allow businesses to access new buyers and sellers worldwide, and they provide the communications infrastructure needed to streamline procedures and cut costs.

Institutions like schools and hospitals also increasingly depend on high-speed Internet to meet the needs of students, health care providers and patients. Online college courses are a fact of life for students everywhere, and telemedicine is an important concept that could have tremendous impacts on access to health care in rural northwest Lower Michigan — if, that is, there is reliable, high-speed Internet.

Broadband also is necessary to attract new residents and businesses. People want to live where there is broadband service. It opens new doors to entertainment and communication, and provides access to higher education through distance learning. Locations without reliable, fast Internet access are quickly passed over by many businesses. Corporate site selectors and businesses expect broadband. It’s not a “nice to have” — it’s a “must have” for attracting new investment.

When communities don’t have it they get left behind.

These communities find themselves on the wrong side of the “digital divide” — that is, the gulf between communities with access to necessary communications technologies and those without.

Benzie County is one local example of the digital divide: Options for high-speed Internet for many Benzie County residents and businesses are limited or nonexistent. While many residents enjoy relatively robust Internet service, connection speeds can vary dramatically, especially in the summer months, when Benzie’s population climbs and service slows noticeably. Inconsistent or slow connections are a major liability for those working in the information economy, who rely on a fast, stable, and consistent Internet connection.

Recognizing the value of high-speed Internet to Benzie’s business environment, some county and other community leaders are exploring options to expand service to under-served parts of Benzie County. One goal is to improve the quality of service for those who already have access. Another is to develop premium Internet options in select parts of the county. Many communities around Michigan are offering Internet service with speeds that are roughly 100 times faster than a standard cable-based Internet connection.

While the average user probably doesn’t need a connection that fast, this level of service is necessary for, companies that specialize in advanced manufacturing or design engineers who work collaboratively with people all over the planet. The ability to offer such lightning-fast connections could be a major strategic advantage when working to attract new business or industry to the county.

So how can Benzie County position itself for high-speed Internet and the competitive digital edge that it brings? For answers to that question, community leaders in Benzie County have organized the Benzie Broadband Summit.

Benzie County businesses, government officials, and other community representatives will gather on April 5 at the Garden Theatre in Frankfort to discuss broadband options and learn more about how Benzie County can bring broadband to their residents and business community.

Speakers including broadband providers, representatives of other communities in Michigan and Minnesota, and local officials will discuss collaborative solutions to this increasingly-important piece of the business puzzle.

To participate in the summit, please visit www.networksnorthwest.org or call 231-929-5000.

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