Rural Internet access faces more challenges

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LANSING — High-speed Internet access remains out of reach for many Michigan residents, especially in rural parts of the state, and many who have access don’t appreciate it, research by a Michigan State University team shows.

“There are still a lot of areas, especially in our state, where you just can't get broadband. It's a question, even where it is accessible, of whether it's being adopted,” said Robert LaRose, a professor of telecommunication, information studies and media at MSU.

Broadband refers to a high-speed Internet connection that is always on. It can be delivered several ways, including the ones that carry telephone and cable television service.

A legislative liaison with the Public Service Commission said he mostly agreed with LaRose’s assessment.

“The kind of calls that I tend to get are from people who are aware of the values and benefits of the Internet, but are frustrated that they don’t have access,” said Greg White.

But the president of an association that represents 35 small, rural phone companies in Michigan disagreed.

“They have done a fantastic job rolling out broadband in their rural counties. When you think of some of the remote areas that now have broadband access, it’s pretty remarkable,” said Scott Stevenson, president of the Telecommunications Association of Michigan.

Stevenson said that many of the areas where broadband is still not available are serviced by Verizon, which is not a member of his organization. He also said that legislation under consideration that would reduce the fees large companies like Verizon pay to use small companies’ infrastructure could seriously hurt small providers’ revenues, making it harder for them to expand.

LaRose has completed a four-year study about rural Internet access that was supported by a $408,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The study, which compared Huron County in Michigan to other counties in Kentucky and Texas, found that Internet use was strongly tied to economic class, and suggested the danger that those without access would become “second-class citizens” in a technology-driven economy.

“We found broadband access increased, but we're still seeing a gap between rich and poor,” he said.

LaRose said that efforts to build the necessary technological infrastructure for high-speed Internet have been mostly successful, but that not enough has been done on the human side of the equation — explaining the benefits to potential users and letting them know about Web resources that can help in both their personal lives and business endeavors.

And despite increased infrastructure, many users still rely on community resources such as libraries because home access is unaffordable, he said. In many parts of rural Michigan, there is heavy competition between users for those limited computers.

The spread of Internet access will open business opportunities in depressed areas of the state, he said.

“Starting up home businesses is a way to revitalize our rural areas by jump-starting entrepreneurship,” he said.

The Public Service Commission’s White agreed about the potential of broadband access to help business development.

“I think people really understand that you can now live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and work and have the kind of job you want and save on the commuting,” White said.

However, White also pointed to the state’s economic difficulties and troubled history with government intervention in broadband.

“My own personal view is, yes, this is not the time to be pulling back. But we just don’t have the money in Michigan,” White said.

In Oakland County, for example, the Wireless Oakland project, which would have offered free Internet access to the entire county, has been on hold since June 2008 because the county said its “private sector partners have been unable to secure funding.”

“It’s a tight credit market right now,” said Phil Bertolini, deputy executive of Oakland County and leader of the project. His team is looking at various funding possibilities and “still thinks it’s the right thing to do.”

“We're working with high schools in four counties up north, teaching basic Web skills. They'll be building sites talking about what it's like in their community,” LaRose said.

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