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Advocates Call for Funding for Michigan Broadband Office

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the office in June 2021 with the aim of expanding broadband Internet access to more residents, but the office as yet has no budget and therefore no fulltime staff.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — A group of rural Michigan advocates are urging state lawmakers to fund and staff the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the office in June 2021 with the aim of expanding broadband internet access to more residents. But the office as yet has no budget and therefore no fulltime staff.

"We need the Michigan legislature to act and approve the funding and full-time employees as requested by the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity for our Michigan High-Speed Internet Office," said Joanne Galloway, executive director of the Center for Change Northern Michigan Advocacy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization established in 2019.

She and other advocates pressing for increasing residents' access to broadband spoke during a Feb. 9 virtual press conference.

"I'm advocating for funding and full-time staff for the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office," said Levi Teitel, rural communications coordinator for Progress Michigan, the Lansing-based nonprofit that coordinated the online meeting.

Galloway, a small-farm business owner, said the lack of connectivity in rural areas of Michigan has concerned her for more than a decade.

"All 50 states are receiving lots of federal funding for broadband development. Our neighboring states already have staff in place in offices. We're going to be competing with others all across this country for access to all of the supplies to do construction (of internet infrastructure) and all of the labor force," said Galloway.

Broadband service has expanded rapidly in recent years in some parts of Michigan, but the state's most rural areas still have limited access. That puts farmers, students and businesses at a disadvantage to their competitors in places with faster access.

"The need is dire," said Gary Wellnitz, northern Michigan field representative for the American Federation of Teachers — Michigan.

"Every school district that I represent across northern Michigan sings the same tune: 'We simply do not have the ability to reach out to these kids in their homes properly, with good internet.'"

An educator for 35 years in Mackinac County, Wellnitz now represents school districts from Clare over to Tawas and north to Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula. He said students and educators who live in rural areas with slow internet service are being increasingly limited by sluggish access.

"Going virtual through this pandemic really opened our eyes to that," he said. "Even when we're not going virtual, those kids need the ability to do homework, to be able to do research in their homes — and we are just putting them behind their peers nationally and globally."

Local economies without broadband suffer for the lack, he said.

"We have many people who wish to relocate to the eastern U.P. because of its beauty and lifestyle. But they need to be able to work from home or in their business that they want to start there. This has just been a huge impediment to economic development," said Wellnitz.

Bob Thompson, president of the Michigan Farmers Union, operates and lives on his family's Centennial Farm in central Michigan.

"In today's world, it is without question that affordable, accessible, stable, high-speed internet — in all corners of Michigan — is critical," he said.

"Family farmers need to closely monitor commodity markets, have access to educational programming, make the most out of opportunities presented by federal and state loans and grants, and even in the purchasing and delivery of necessary farm implements, parts and other supplies."

"Given the amount of federal dollars that are available for broadband investment, our state legislature needs to quit pinching pennies, look to the future and fully fund the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office, including the eight full-time employees."

Galloway, a resident of the eastern Upper Peninsula for 30 years, said she has witnessed neighbors struggle to keep up as the world moves toward telemedicine and online government services.

"With the current federal investment in broadband, it is currently raining money for broadband development. Now is the time to play our cards right. Every Michigander deserves access to affordable, reliable and secure internet. Dedicated full-time staff in our Michigan High-Speed Internet Office is an important part in making sure that communities get on a level playing field," she said.

She's concerned that the office has existed for nearly a year and still hasn't been funded by the legislature.

"Without any funding and without the eight full-time employees, it's just a shell of an entity," she said.

© 2022 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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