Some Michiganders left disconnected from world dependent on reliable high-speed internet – The Oakland Press

Hundreds of thousands of Michigan households in rural and urban communities don’t have access to high-speed internet.

Now, even more so than ever, people and places are connected via the internet. Yet, many Michiganders are left disconnected from this critical infrastructure needed to connect with friends and family, buy goods and services, access health care, perform their jobs, for banking and investing, and research anything imaginable.

According to federal data, the average percentage of households in the state’s 83 counties without high-speed internet access is 17.5%. Around 13.5% of those households don’t have smartphones, computers or tablets that can connect to high-speed internet.

According to the U.S. Commerce Department, 23 Michigan counties remain unserved in rural and urban areas meaning they have access to speeds under 25Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines “unserved” areas as communities where 80% of the population has no access to broadband or no access to high-speed broadband, which it defines as speeds of less than 25Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

Jeremy Sheets, president of CMS Internet, an internet service provider, said his company has done its best to expand high-speed broadband to more customers across mid-Michigan, even to those in the most rural parts of their coverage area, but added that providing reliable, high-speed internet to everyone in Michigan doesn’t sound economically feasible due to the the sheer labor cost needed to install the underground infrastructure.

“The biggest challenge (to expanding broadband) is a simple math problem,” said Sheets. “If it costs X amount of dollars to run fiber a specified distance and in one area you’re gonna pass 50 homes and in a very rural area you might pass three homes the return on investment makes it a lot harder to justify running fiber into those rural areas. It costs the same to deploy a mile of fiber whether we pass 50 houses or whether we pass five.”

He said that the majority of his most rural customers receive their internet via fixed wireless as opposed to fiber. It’s cheaper to install over a larger, more rural area and recent technology advances have helped to increase the capacity of fixed wireless resulting in access to faster speeds for people living in areas without access to the fiver network, which is seen in more densely population, urban areas

“In our rural coverage areas, we’ve done a really good job of upgrading all of our fixed wireless sites,” he said. “There’s a few that we are still working on upgrading, but I would say for over 75% of our coverage area we can deliver the 25 Mgbps or higher packages via fixed wireless. We’re even seeing some fixed wireless sites that can deliver speeds similar to cable or fiber broadband.”

Increasing the overall capacity of broadband infrastructure, which leads to higher speeds for more customers in more areas, has been driven primarily by provider competition in the marketplace and the need among individual customers to stream higher bandwidth applications, such as video and television.

Although the State of Michigan is continuing to invest millions in broadband expansion efforts, Sheets said he would advise leaders in Lansing to let the free market do what it has done quite well and that is letting provider competition and private investment drive the expansion of broadband.

“Does it make sense to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to expand broadband infrastructure into a rural area that serves two people?”, he added.  “When people are deciding to live out in the rural areas there’s certain sacrifices that they make.”Where do we stand now?

More than 212,000 households in Michigan lack the opportunity to access a high-speed internet connection and another additional 865,000 households face barriers related to affordability, adoption, or digital literacy, according to the Michigan Department of Labor (LEO), which houses the newly-created Michigan High Speed Internet Office.

Taken together, this means that approximately 31% of Michigan households do not have an affordable, reliable high-speed internet connection that meets their needs.

Sarah Tennant, Development Director of Cyber Initiatives for the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), said access to the internet is not a luxury, but a necessity with high-speed internet becoming as foundational from an infrastructure standpoint as roads and bridges.

“While internet access was always important, the COVID 19 pandemic forced everyone into an online environment overnight in March 2020 highlighting that every aspect of life was impacted by access to fast, reliable and affordable high-speed internet service including connecting to each in a time when staying apart was the most important thing that we could do.

She added that access to virtual learning, telehealth, government services, shopping, teleworking, and instantaneous global communications is predicated on individual or businesses internet connection.

According to LEO, around 1.24 million Michigan households still do not have a permanent fixed broadband connection at home resulting in $1.8B to $2.7B in potential economic benefit left unrealized among disconnected households.

In Oakland County, arguably the most digitally-advanced and wealthiest county in the state, 8.8% of its over 500,000 households have no internet access. In Macomb County, 11.7% of households still do not have internet access. That number increases to 19% in Wayne County, 24.5% in Clare County, 22.4% in Gratiot County, and 13.2% in Isabella County, according to the NTIA.

Scott Stevenson, president of the Michigan Telecommunications Association, said it often comes down to the ability of broadband providers to make a business case for network investments when talking about why some communities, whether large or small, have greater broadband access than others.

“If Michigan wants to be a national leader in broadband access, it needs to make sure federal funding flows to networks that serve families and businesses and not to governments,” he said. “Michigan policymakers need to enact laws that make us the least costly state for broadband providers to invest in so our residents have the best possible access.”

In more urban areas, the lack of internet access can be attributed to affordability. The population density yields infrastructure buildout, but there is a low rate of subscription due to socioeconomic inequality. In rural areas, there have been affordability issues but also a lack of population density and challenging terrain that could hinder an internet provider’s ability to increase access.

“When it comes to broadband solutions there is not a one size fits all model, each region has unique challenges that need to be addressed,” said Tennant.

According to the 2021 update to the Michigan Broadband Roadmap, high-speed internet now serves as the definitive infrastructure driving the global economic transformation with the COVID-19 pandemic having made this fact indisputable.

“Every aspect of life is impacted by access to fast, reliable, and affordable high-speed internet service,” reads the report. “From virtual learning, telehealth, and access to government services to online shopping, teleworking, and instantaneous global communication, access to the internet is critical for every resident, business, institution, and community in Michigan.”

Access to reliable, high-speed internet can impact the economic viability of communities with even more Mmichiganders now working from home, is essential for on-demand online learning during COVID-19 and beyond, and can help improve community health outcomes through access to healthcare information and resources such as internet-based counseling, coaching, and educational materials.

Nationally, according to the 2021 FCC Broadband Progress Report, the number of Americans living in areas without access to at least 25/3 Mbps has dropped from more than 18.1 million Americans at the end of 2018 to fewer than 14.5 million Americans at the end of 2019, a decrease of more than 20%.

Moreover, more than 75% of those in newly served areas, nearly 3.7 million, are located in rural areas, bringing the number of rural Americans in areas served by at least 25/3 Mbps to nearly 83%. Since 2016, the number of Americans living in rural areas lacking access to 25/3 Mbps service has fallen more than 46%.

“As a result, the rural– urban divide is rapidly closing; the gap between the percentage of urban Americans and the percentage of rural Americans with access to 25/3 Mbps fixed broadband has been nearly halved, falling from 30 points at the end of 2016 to just 16 points at the end of 2019,” reads the report.

Increased investment

At this time, there is around $1 billion flowing to broadband expansion and access projects and programs across the state, according to Stevenson.

In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a $4.8 billion supplemental into law, the single largest infrastructure investment in state history, which included $945 million from the federal Infrastructure Law.

Around $250 million was set aside for the Michigan Statewide Broadband Service Grant Program, which provides grants to local units of government and educational institutions for operation or construction of a broadband network. The grant program is being administered by LEO.

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