Rural Communities Suffer the Most Without Access to the Web

Over 380,000 households in the state still lack access to fixed broadband.

by Lauren Gibbons, MLive.com / June 29, 2018

(TNS) — Like most people these days, Wanda Finkler relies on the Internet to stay connected.

Finkler lives in Twin Lake in Muskegon County, Mich., and shops online, does her banking online, uses social media to connect with her friends and family.

So, as she built a new home in the area, Finkler was excited by the prospect of getting broadband access after several years with satellite Internet. Finkler's current satellite plan works, but is slow, especially when more than one person is online.

But when she called for a follow-up to set up high-speed Internet at her new place, she was told there'd been a mistake - her property wasn't close enough to the provider's hub, so the broadband access she'd been hoping for was no longer an option.

"I live 10 minutes from a Meijer grocery store - it's not like I'm out in the middle of nowhere," she said. "The limited resources available for people is really frustrating."

Finkler's home is one of about 381,000 households in the state that don't have access to fixed broadband Internet, defined as a connection with download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of at least 3 megabits per second by the Federal Communications Commission. Of those, an estimated 368,000 are in rural areas.

Finkler is now looking at setting up Internet through a satellite service that starts at $49.99 for 10 gigabytes of data per month, but she's concerned that going over a data limit could mean higher costs and even slower speeds.

"Now I'm back to square one," she said. "I just want the Internet - who doesn't need the Internet anymore?"

The FCC estimates 5.74 percent of Michigan's population - 573,426 people - have no broadband providers in their area, and only 62.32 percent have more than one option for high-speed Internet. Those who don't have access to broadband can sometimes opt for other options, such as satellite, a cellular hotspot or dial up, but those are generally slower, face larger data caps and can be affected by weather or other interference more than traditional cable.

The issue also extends to schools. According to a report from Education Superhighway, a nonprofit studying Internet access at schools throughout the country, 157,490 students in 54 school districts in Michigan don't have access to 25 megabits per second of total bandwidth. Nationally, the group estimates 6.5 million students lack that level of broadband access.

The 25 megabits per second download speed is considered good for average Internet use - for perspective, Netflix recommends speeds of 5 megabits per second to stream HD video and 25 megabits per second for Ultra HD. But several factors, including how many devices a person has and what they're using them for, weigh into how much Internet a household or business needs. Higher speeds are somewhat less common - 87.52 percent of Michigan households have access to 100 megabits per second, and 4.29 percent of households have access to the very high speed of 1 gigabit per second.

A free test to determine your current Internet speed is available at Speedtest.net.

A lack of reliable, speedy Internet can impact several aspects of a community's success, including access to educational and economic development opportunities, said Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan. Connect Michigan is a nonprofit that works with the Michigan Public Service Commission to track broadband access in the state.

Getting people access to that infrastructure and educating them on ways they can use it "literally improves the quality of life, community and health of the entire state," Frederick said. "It's not the areas that are connected subsidizing those that are not connected, it's investing in the improvement of the entire state."

But bridging the gap between urban and rural when it comes to broadband access can be costly. The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission estimated in 2016 that Michigan would need to kick in $50 million annually over the next 10 years to ensure every resident and business in the state has access to high-speed Internet by 2020.

When there's no broadband at all

The disparity of Internet access is perhaps most pronounced in the Upper Peninsula, where a large majority of residents in at least two counties, Luce and Iron, do not have access to a broadband provider at the 25 megabit per second speed tier.

Roughly three percent of Michigan's population lives in the Upper Peninsula, spread out across about 29 percent of the state's total land area. Getting communities like Newberry - population 1,452 - the same connection capabilities as Novi - population 59,211 - is a lot tougher.

Tammy Henry, executive director of the Luce County Economic Development Corporation, said Newberry is actually an exception in Luce County, because parts of the downtown now have access to a high speed provider thanks to the village's participation in Project Rising Tide, an initiative sponsored by the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development. She said residents with newfound access are "loving every minute of it."

Sara Cambensy, a legislator that represents a large swath of the Upper Peninsula in the state House, said having more access to fixed broadband would be a "game changer" for communities up north. But when she looks at the immediate needs of Luce and other areas of the U.P., she sees local governments struggling to provide other critical needs to residents.

"Because of how rural our areas are, we are forced to find ways to be innovative, be creative in how we communicate and partake in the state and regional economy," said Cambensy, D-Marquette.

Private companies are also looking to fill the broadband Internet gap in the coming years. Iron Mountain-based company Packerland recently announced it was partnering with Microsoft to use TV white spaces, wi-fi hardware and other technologies to expand broadband Internet access to about 33,750 additional people in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula by the end of 2019. By 2022, the companies hope to expand Internet to about 82,000 people in the region.

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, described broadband in the Upper Peninsula as "a good news story - it's just slow in getting there."

Regardless of how it's done, Bergman said every family in his district, isolated or no, should have access to call or text someone, or access websites with ease.

"Broadband is not a luxury - it's a utility that we need to have," he said.

Both Bergman and Cambensy pointed to Northern Michigan University's Education Access Network initiative, which is working to provide personal cellular service plans across the Upper Peninsula at various tiers for students, alumni and interested community members, as a creative option for getting at least some access.

"We may not have the fastest, greatest, best connection, but we could be connected at some level," Cambensy said. "My hope is that it opens our eyes to other options."

A local solution

In Washtenaw County's Lyndon Township, only a few clusters of households on the outskirts of the township had access to fixed high-speed broadband Internet - nearly everyone else relies on costly cellular hotspots, nearby coffee shops or the Chelsea library when they need access, Lyndon Township Supervisor Marc Keezer said.

About five years ago, residents decided they wanted more, and encouraged township officials to do something about it. But when the township put out a request for proposals to build broadband capacity in their area, no providers took the bait.

"It was not a good return on investment for a private company - they couldn't make it work financially," Keezer said.

So, they went to the ballot. In August 2017, township voters approved a $7 million, 20-year millage to fund a fiber optic network and partner with a private service provider to deliver Internet access. The Washtenaw County-based group Michigan Broadband Cooperative estimates the average cost per property owner will be about $21.92 per month, and basic Internet access of 100 megabits per second with no data usage caps will cost an additional $35-45 per month.

Keezer said the township will begin collecting the 2.9 mills with the winter 2018 tax bill, and expects the framework installation will begin this year. The township is currently in contract negotiations with Midwest Energy and Communications to be their Internet service provider.

What Lyndon Township residents did for Internet service is unique, and other small townships in the region are considering the possibility. But it's not a solution everyone in Michigan wants - in May, about 65 percent of Washtenaw County's Sharon Township voters rejected a similar proposal for a broadband millage.

State Rep. Donna Lasinski, D-Scio Township, is trying to give rural areas in Michigan at least one other option to seek out better Internet. Last year, she introduced legislation that would allow townships to create special assessment districts to fund broadband and communications projects. A township-wide millage is a "blunt tool" that might not be right for communities where only some residents are experiencing Internet issues, and yet without some collaboration, companies won't build in areas where they'll lose money, she said.

"There are ways to make it much more targeted to who needs it, ways to make it more equitable in how it's paid for," she said. "Really, it's that dream of the public-private partnership."

Lasinski said she's frustrated that kids in her district often crowd into the Manchester McDonalds on school nights or sit in their cars with their laptops in their laps in the Chelsea District Library parking lot after it closes, just to get their homework done. She's also concerned that property values on homes without reliable broadband access are significantly lower.

"We need broadband access - in every home, every residence, every small business," she said.

Keezer said his township would have appreciated additional options to get to reliable Internet for residents who weren't getting it.

"The hoops we've had to jump through to get to where we are right now were costly and time consuming," he said. "There's got to be different avenues."

Data discrepancies

Looking at a broadband coverage map is like looking at a household density map, Frederick said - in areas where more people live, residents have better access to reliable Internet, and more choices for that coverage.

"As soon as you get out of urban and suburban areas, into small towns, that service and that speed falls right off, because household density falls off," Frederick said.

Even in areas where there is service, a lack of options can also make broadband access a hindrance. More providers in an area can make prices more competitive, and prices can vary widely from region to region. Internet that costs a family in a metro region $40 a month could cost a family more than $100 in a rural area.

Frederick has personal experience with this. He lives in Charlotte, and up until recently the only Internet he could get at his home was 1.5 megabits per second for $125 a month with no data cap. The coverage area he lives in was recently eligible for an FCC subsidy, and AT&T expanded into his area with a 10 megabits per second speed. But there is a data cap on that service, and after Frederick did the math, he decided it wouldn't be worth it.

"I'd rather stick with slower speed than switch to something and pay for the data that I use," he said.

Where providers offer service is essentially a business decision. Setting up the infrastructure necessary for fixed broadband service entails significant upfront costs, and low-population areas often can't provide the return on investment companies are looking for.

Data provided to the federal government can also be a roadblock for experts in determining what Michigan's actual broadband infrastructure needs are. Broadband providers report their coverage to the FCC by census block, a geographic unit used by the U.S. Census Bureau, but if at least one household has access in that block, the area is marked as provided for - meaning some people in large rural census blocks might not actually be getting coverage.

Legislation introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Robert Latta, R-Ohio, would require the FCC to create a task force to better identify and measure gaps in broadband coverage. In the Senate, a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, aims to make data more reliable for mobile wireless coverage.

Federal officials have pledged support for filling in broadband gaps through subsidies in rural areas. President Donald Trump signed an executive order earlier this year to "provide broader and faster, and better Internet coverage," and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and FCC offer various grants and subsidy for providers looking to expand access in rural regions across the country.

At the state level, Gov. Rick Snyder created the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks, whose members will put out a report by Aug. 1 on existing gaps in broadband coverage and capacity across Michigan and recommendations to improve connectivity.

It's expected to build off the findings of the 2016 21st Century Infrastructure Commission report. Specific suggestions from the commission included helping investors find funding and creating a financing program for residents installing or readying a site for broadband.

Frederick said there are other options that could help, including streamlining permitting processes for providers looking to build across county lines and having a dedicated office to deal with broadband access needs. But to make broadband a priority, legislative action must be taken, he said.

"There has to be some effort done by those that are in power to put a lot of this stuff in action," he said. "I think they absolutely are (interested), but I think they're a little bit stuck on what, exactly, to do."

Over the last several months, MLive has explored issues of economy, education and infrastructure, and what Michigan leaders need to do to create a better future. We'd love to hear from you, about your struggles and your wins, as you navigate life in Michigan. We want to use your voice and your questions to frame the conversation with candidates as we head into midterm elections. Have a story to share, send us an email to michiganbeyond@mlive.com.

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