Closing the gap
Private, public efforts underway to bring internet to rural areas
ALPENA — The lack of broadband availability is more than an inconvenience in northern Michigan, it is an obstacle to growth, local internet providers said.
Without accessibility to the online world, communities are cut off from a wealth of information, connection to people, business opportunities, and general technological advances, providers said. It also prevents digital literacy and can hold people back from functioning in new locations where everyday functions are more aligned with modern technologies.
Large areas across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency and Alcona counties lack access to high-speed internet, and it remains a barrier to basic developments, officials said.
However, before a solution can be identified, the variables lending to that technology gap must be identified.
LACK OF ACCESSIBILITY
There are multiple hurdles preventing rural areas from connecting to broadband, but the two major issues have been affordability and household density, internet providers said.
Eric Frederick, executive director for Connect Michigan, said broadband is very much a market-driven utility, meaning businesses invest where they know they’ll find a large customer base. So, in large rural areas with fewer households, the dominant private providers are unwilling to install broadband infrastructure because it isn’t worth the cost to them.
Not only are there areas that completely lack service, but there are many with service that isn’t effective, which those who track internet access deem an underserved area. Top internet providers such as Charter Spectrum offer internet speeds of 100 megabits per second, but rural areas rarely get access to such efficient service.
Connect Michigan, which is supported by its parent nonprofit organization known as Connected Nation, has since 2009 worked with the Michigan Public Service Commission to improve broadband access in the state.
Part of the group’s efforts have included detailed mapping analysis all over Michigan to determine the areas with the greatest need. The organization has been able to define household densities all over the state and track where businesses and residents have access to internet speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.
In Alpena County, where there are almost 13,000 homes, only about 6 percent cannot access internet at those speeds. Alcona County has only a little over 5,000 homes, and 20 percent lack access to internet at those speeds. Presque Isle County has about 68 percent of residents lacking access to those speeds, with almost 6,000 homes in the county.
Northeast Michigan’s most underserved area is Montmorency County, with about 4,400 homes and more than 76 percent of households lacking access. Connect Michigan says Montmorency County is the fourth-most underserved in the state, behind only Luce, Lake and Oscoda counties.
Bringing internet to the far corners of the state is not a new issue, nor has it been an easy one to tackle.
While there have been significant efforts from government agencies, private companies, and millions of dollars in federal funding, it is still a tedious and lumbering effort to serve rural America, providers said.
However, there is new federal funding, planning at the state level, partnerships with major companies, and even grassroots movements creating service where many private companies have refused to set up shop.
HOW TO BRING ACCESS TO RURAL MICHIGAN
In August, Gov. Rick Snyder announced a plan to provide access to every Michigan resident, business, region, and community.
In partnership with Connect Michigan, Snyder created the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks, known as MCAN, to gather input from all over the state from private and public entities on how to best create a sustainable plan to connect the underserved.
MCAN has compiled the research of lacking areas in Michigan and is working with the federal government to help serve the state.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proven to be a major advocate for internet service in Michigan. The department offers Community Connect Grants and Distance Learning and Telemedicine Grants to help providers in rural areas offset the cost of doing business in regions with low household density.
In addition, the department offers loans, including Farm Bill Broadband Loans and loan guarantees to cover costs associated with providing high-speed internet, including construction, improvements, and maintenance of facilities and equipment.
The Federal Communications Commission has pumped funding into broadband availability for years. That agency created the Universal Service Fund, which includes four programs that have been working to help close the technology gap. Within the USF are the Connect America Fund, Lifeline, Schools and Libraries (E-Rate), and Rural Health Care programs.
The Connect America Fund gave almost $400 million to Michigan providers in 2015 to help cover gaps, according to MCAN.
In July, the Connect America Fund promised $198 million in subsidies per year over 10 years across the country.
While those numbers seem impressive in print and fill communities with hope that the dreaded technological black holes they live in will suddenly find the light, the process is much more complicated.
“Millions of dollars doesn’t connect everybody,” Frederick said.
That is the very reason some private citizens have stepped forward to help their communities after growing tired of their own struggles without access to technology.
In Atlanta, located in Montmorency County, Carl Cadwallader has started Barger Creek Wireless as a way to give back to his hometown. With an education and background in radio frequency signals, he had a strong foundation to start the business. Cadwallader funds the company completely on his own and his only goal is to sustain the company while bringing service to more homes.
“I am not trying to create a corporation,” Cadwallader said, “just enough of a return to get back out each year.”
The company currently has about 60 customers and is on track to grow to 100 by the end of the year. Base packages start out at about $29 for five megabits per second, with no data caps. Cadwallader has worked continuously to expand wireless service in the area and says he fields calls daily from people looking for service where other carriers will not provide. Cadwallader said he understands the immense benefits of broadband access for education, health care, and growth, and he has taken on the venture to better the community where he grew up.
In Curran, Allband Communications has proven to be a pioneer in rural broadband and phone service.
The company’s president started Allband when he was building a home in Curran and could not get any phone service after a long, drawn-out fight with the local phone carrier at the time and the commercial company that bought them out later on.
The lack of phone service and tragedies caused by the inability to call 911 is what helped create Allband Communications.
General Manager Ron Siegel was recruited to the company and brought with him an educational background in broadband. The company has been built upon loans, grants, subsidies, and partnerships with local road commissions and governing agencies to be able to give people reliable high-speed internet. They have about 800 subscribers and are constantly looking for new ways to bring access to the surrounding communities.
The company covers areas in Alpena, Alcona, Montmorency, and Oscoda counties.
Most notable may be Allband’s partnership with Microsoft in the Airband Initiative, which uses TV white space to help transmit signals to bring broadband service to homes. The technology, being tested in Michigan and around the world, has been in the works for some time, but is still in its pilot stage.
Allband happens to be one of the partners, and the firm has recently provided Airband service in Hillman. While it is still in its early stages, it is better than dial-up or satellite internet, and continues to be an emerging technology providing underserved areas with reliable access.
Allband was also part of a pilot program that used Airband to provide high-speed internet access on school buses, so kids would be able to work on homework on the ride to and from school.
Siegel said people have told him they decided to buy certain houses because Allband could provide them with service, and he said there is no greater feeling than providing such an important resource to people.
“I have done this work for the people,” Siegel said.
Some communities have had to find their own way when they have exhausted every other option.
Lyndon Township in Washtenaw County is a prime example of community initiative. The township is only about 20 minutes west of Ann Arbor, the sixth-biggest city in the state, and it tried for years to bring high-speed internet to its residents, with no avail.
In August 2017, the residents passed a bond proposal to provide funds to install a community-owned fiber-optic broadband network to bring internet to each home in the township.
Records show it was a record-high voter turnout for a non-general election. The approved bonds will be repaid by a 20-year millage with an average rate of 2.91 mills, or $145 a year for the owner of a $100,000 house.
KEEP MOVING FORWARD
The access to high-speed internet is opportunity and change for many underserved areas.
People can work from home, the elderly can discuss health issues at a computer screen instead of leaving home, children can find a world of knowledge at their fingertips, and local businesses can function at a higher level.
When communities cannot keep up with technological changes, they lose sustainability, internet providers said. Younger generations move on to places that can give them opportunity. People have to keep striving for more and pushing to close the gap, local internet providers said. It is not a new problem.
When Connect Michigan worked with counties in the state to develop action plans addressing the barriers to broadband, members of Leadership Alcona in Alcona county drew upon the parallels between today’s technology gap and problems faced by rural America lacking electricity in the 1930s.
“The comforts and economic advantages of electricity are greatly desired by these American homes,” President Franklin Roosevelt said in a speech following his signing of the Rural Electrification Act. “I am sure of it, and I am sure that you agree with me.”
A look at the percentage of households in each county lacking access to internet at speeds of at least 25 megabits per second
Presque Isle 68%
Source: Connect Michigan
Kaitlin Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 358-5693.