According to Eric Frederick, executive director of Connected Nation Michigan – a nonprofit group dedicated to closing the digital divide in all its forms.
Frederick said at least 1.3 million people in Michigan, many in rural areas, lack high-speed internet access.
Some of them report that their only Internet connection is a smart phone or smartphone hotspot, or they may have access via satellite service, or even a dial-up connection.
“But the most concerning part of all of this is the 15% of Michigan households who report having no internet access at home – no device, no smartphone, no satellite – nothing,” he said. he declares.
Frederick said the pandemic has highlighted the urgency of addressing these disparities. People without internet service couldn’t turn to telehealth visits to connect with their doctor, get prescriptions or advice on whether it was time to go to the ER
“We’ve had school kids in some areas who had to be driven to a local library or McDonalds to do homework or attend virtual classes during the pandemic,” Frederick said.
But federal funding for the US bailout and in particular the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be a game-changer, he said. “We are definitely on the cusp of something big.”
Michigan has earmarked $250 million for competitive grants from its ARP funds for the “last mile,” household-to-household internet connections in some underserved areas, as well as some fiber optic projects to connect more of rural residents to Internet service. .
But starting next year, Michigan could start receiving between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion to expand high-speed internet across the state, Frederick said, and that will be enough, he says, to ensure that every person in the state can access it.
Whether everyone will be able to afford high-speed Internet service is the most difficult issue, Frederick said. Currently, there is a program called the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30 monthly subsidy to Michigan residents to offset the cost of internet service. But Frederick thinks that in the long term there will have to be a combination of private and public efforts to ensure that people can afford the internet access enjoyed by their more affluent neighbors.
Frederick said private companies aren’t the only way to provide high-speed Internet access. Some cities, including Marshall, Traverse City and Coldwater have built open access networks.
Then there are projects undertaken by rural electricity cooperatives.
Craig Borr is president of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association.
He said members of five electric co-ops in Michigan have approved plans to build broadband networks.
He said it’s a natural extension of what the co-ops were set up to do in the first place – supply electricity to areas that private companies weren’t interested in because the number of customers was so low. Now, he says, they provide internet because private companies are not interested in investing in rural areas.
“Basically, rural residents have been treated like second-class citizens because of where they live,” he said. “They weren’t able to receive the same level of Internet service as suburban and city dwellers in Michigan.”
The five electric co-ops involved in Internet expansion are Almost Isle Electric and Gas Co-op, Thumb Electric Co-op, Great Lakes Energy, Homeworks Tri-County, and Midwest Energy and Communications.
The co-ops have pledged to spend a total of about $1 billion to connect several hundred thousand homes in rural Michigan to high-speed internet, Borr said.
Borr said while the plans are ambitious, a state law passed about two years ago helps keep costs down. Electric cooperatives are now allowed to use their own existing electric easements to install fiber optic lines for internet service.
Borr said the projects are in various stages of development, but it’s hoped the co-ops will be able to access some of the federal funding that comes from Michigan for internet expansion.
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