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Michigan on cusp of major broadband expansion to areas of state with little access

At least 1.3 million people in the state of Michigan lack access to broadband, or high speed internet
Advocates say at least 1.3 million people in the state of Michigan lack access to broadband, or high speed internet.

Every resident in the state could have access to broadband, or high speed internet, in the near future, thanks to federal funds coming Michigan's way, according to Eric Frederick, Executive Director of Connected Nation Michigan — a non-profit group dedicated to eliminating the digital divide in all its forms.

Frederick said at least 1.3 million people in Michigan, many in rural areas, lack access to high speed internet.

Some of those report their only connection to the internet is a smart phone, or a smartphone hotspot, or they may have some access via satellite service, or even dialup.

"But the more disturbing part of this, is the 15% of Michigan households that report they have no internet at home whatsoever — no device, no smartphone, no satellite — nothing," he said.

Frederick said the pandemic highlighted the urgency of addressing these disparities. People without internet service could not turn to telehealth visits to connect with their physicians, get prescriptions, or advice on whether it was time to go the E.R.

"We had schoolkids in some areas who had to be driven to a local library or McDonalds to do homework or attend virtual classes during the pandemic," said Frederick.

But federal funding from the American Rescue Plan and especially the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be a game changer, he said. "We are definitely on the cusp of something major."

Michigan has set aside $250 million for competitive grants from its ARP funds for "last mile," household-by-household connections to the internet in some underserved areas, as well as some fiber optic projects to connect larger numbers of rural residents to internet service.

But starting next year, Michigan may begin to receive between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion to expand high speed internet across the state, Frederick said, and that will be enough, he believes, to ensure every person in the state can have access.

Whether everyone will be able to afford high speed internet service is the more difficult problem, Frederick said. Currently, there is a program called the Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers a $30 monthly subsidy to Michigan residents to offset the cost of internet service. But Frederick thinks in the long run there will have to be a combination of private and public efforts to make sure people can afford to access the internet that their more well-off neighbors enjoy.

Frederick said private companies are not the only way to provide high speed internet. Some cities, including Marshall, Traverse City, and Coldwater have built open access networks.

Then there are projects being undertaken by rural electric co-ops.

Craig Borr is President of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association.

He said members of five Michigan electric co-ops have approved projects 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 — provide electricity in areas that private companies weren't interested in because the number of customers was so low. Now, he said, they're providing internet because private companies aren't interested in investing in rural areas.

"Basically, rural residents have been treated as second class citizens because of where they live," he said. "They haven't been able to receive the same level of internet service as people living in suburbs and cities in Michigan."

The five electric co-ops involved in internet expansion are Presque 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 committed to spend a total of about a billion dollars to connect several hundred thousand households in the rural space in Michigan to high speed internet, Borr said.

Borr said while the projects are ambitious, a state law passed about two years ago helps bring down the cost. Electric co-ops are now permitted 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 that the co-ops will be able to access some of the federal funding that is coming Michigan's way for internet expansion.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.