Economic Development and Technology

Closing the digital divide

More than 360,000 rural homes and 27% of K-12 students lack access to broadband internet.

May 24, 2019
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Just a few decades ago, the internet did not exist. Now, it’s nearly impossible for modern people to accomplish daily tasks without it.

Broadband has become such an integral part of society that many would consider it a utility, just as necessary as electricity, heat and running water.

As the technology advances, however, only some people are able to take full advantage.

Residents and businesses in cities typically have unlimited access, able to share information instantly with few hiccups, while those in rural communities are being left behind in a quickly increasing “digital divide.”

Limited access

In Michigan, more than 360,000 rural homes and 27% of K-12 students lack access to broadband internet.

Since much of today’s schoolwork is internet-based, students often have trouble getting work done once they go home. Rural residents increasingly are starting home-based businesses that entirely rely on the internet.

Patients without broadband can’t have pacemakers monitored remotely or use the increasing number of health care telecommunications services, forcing them to spend the time and money for long trips to the hospital.

With Industry 4.0 arriving, manufacturers are dealing with technology more and more as it continues to infiltrate the industry. Without the capability of handling these advancements, some areas of the state may decline as others continue to grow, according to Birgit Klohs, president and CEO of The Right Place.

Daniel Slezak, information technology manager for Greenville-based Aggressive Tooling, said the manufacturer finally obtained updated service from Casair in 2011 from what would have been considered high speed in 2002.

During rainy weather or the spring thaw, he said the internet and phone just wouldn’t work, sometimes for days.

The largest provider in Newaygo County is Newaygo County Advanced Technology Services, offered through the intermediate school district, which provides quality service, said Chris Wren, the county’s administrator.

But being geographically large with many rivers and lakes, expansion by the county’s several providers is difficult. While this limits where companies expand, he said it’s residents who have to deal with the immediate issues.

“People choose to live in Newaygo County because we're rural, because we have plenty of space and recreational opportunities. But it competes with the modern conveniences of a city when it comes to broadband,” Wren said.

“While we're trying to ensure Newaygo County remains a rural residential community, we still want to attract that next generation of residents and retain those who grew up here.”

Kelly Wawsczyk, who is on The Right Place’s Newaygo County economic development advisory committee, works for Legends Ranch, a hunting preserve in the remote Bitely area.

The business pays about $800 per month for satellite internet, and she said it goes out every day. The reserve often hosts company getaways, so email access is important. The situation creates a lot of complaints, she said.

Wawsczyk said her family pays high prices for unlimited data at her house, but they often have no connection.

She said there are plans for broadband expansions to her area in the next three to five years, but until then, there’s nothing that can be done.

Impediments

There are a few ways for companies to provide internet access, said Dan Manning, community technology advisor for Connect Michigan, a nonprofit that works to expand broadband for communities and businesses across the state.

There’s the typical form that’s connected through cables, increasingly fiber optics. This can cost tens of millions of dollars to expand into new areas, especially if new infrastructure needs to be built.

There’s fixed wireless internet, which uses towers to provide signals to individual homes. Each tower can only serve so many homes, though, and the signals don’t reach far, so lots of towers are needed in widespread rural areas.

Generally as a last resort, some rural businesses and residents use satellite internet, but that’s expensive, often slow and usually has a cap on data usage, Manning said.

Inevitably, it all comes down to money: first, to build the infrastructure; next, for the horsepower to use it.

Michelle Gilbert, vice president of public relations for Xfinity’s Heartland region, which includes Michigan, said the company invests hundreds of millions of dollars each year to upgrade and expand services. She said while the company always welcomes feedback from communities seeking Xfinity services, those requests can’t always be fulfilled.

“In order for a new build project to make good business sense for our company, there needs to be a return on investment based on the number of homes passed and opportunity to earn new business from the residents and/or businesses,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert said the company currently is expanding service to Laketown and Saugatuck townships as a direct result of the communities expressing desire for Comcast in those areas. When the buildout is complete, 3,349 homes will have access.

A big part of “digital divide” comes from a lack of understanding around the issue, according to Merit Network, an Ann Arbor-based nonprofit that works to develop emergent digital networking and communications technologies.

The intermediate school districts of Mecosta, Osceola, St. Clair and the Eastern Upper Peninsula, representing more than 6,000 students, are taking part in a pilot broadband data collection project through Merit Network, Michigan State University's Quello Center and the Washington D.C.-based Measurement Lab.

The consumer-sourced data is meant to improve the accuracy of broadband availability data and identify areas where access or speed appears to be underestimated or overestimated.

"Educators have been talking about the digital divide for two decades, and while some progress has been made in closing the gap, inequities persist in communities across the country,” said Charlotte Bewersdorff, vice president of marketing and member engagement for Merit Network.

An accurate picture of Michigan's connectivity could reduce barriers to broadband network deployment in rural communities, possibly helping to secure supplemental funding and create community connectivity task force teams and municipal network education initiatives, Merit said.

Closing the divide

Many leaders understand the need for a connected nation and are pushing to make it happen, comparing the effort to a similar one for electricity services in the 1930s.

Manning said a key way leaders are seeking to fix the problem is through government grants to offset companies’ expansion costs.

Starting in July, the state government is accepting applications from service providers and communities for its first broadband grant program. With $20 million allocated, applicants can request grants for $200,000-$5 million to help offset costs of expanding services.

Stanton-based Casair is an internet provider that has been making headway expanding service in rural areas.

In 2010, the company received a $7.9-million loan and $18.5-million grant from the federal government to install a fiber optic network for health care facilities, libraries, schools and community organizations, and wireless service for residents in six counties.  

Last year, the Federal Communications Commission awarded Casair $27.3 million to continue that work.

Steve Meinhardt, president of Casair, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Energy co-ops, such as Boyne City-based Great Lakes Energy and Cassopolis-based Midwest Energy & Communications, have entered into the internet provider market and are working to expand services in rural areas.

Great Lakes Energy has been working on a $54-million project to build a fiber internet network in rural Emmet County and parts of Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties since April 2018, according to Lacey Matthews, communications and marketing manager for Great Lakes Energy. The company began connecting internet and voice customers in November 2018.

The company is carrying out a preliminary engineering study to determine feasibility in its Boyne service district, which includes rural parts of Charlevoix, Antrim, Otsego, Emmet and Cheboygan counties.

Great Lakes Energy was able to use the electric infrastructure it owns in rural areas to also lay fiber cables, Matthews said.

Since laying cables can be so expensive, especially if infrastructure is needed, Wren thinks the future of broadband lies in the advancing wireless technologies.

Connect Michigan has a 2020 goal for 95% of Michigan households to have the national standard of internet access at 25 megabits per second, the result of an initiative by former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to create a roadmap on how to get everyone in the state connected over the next several years.

“That would be nothing short of a miracle here in Newaygo County, but we will do everything we can to ensure it happens,” Wren said.

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