In rural areas, families get creative to get on the Web
HARRISVILLE — Toni Scott and her son not long ago went a whole year without the internet at her rural home near Harrisville.
She’d tried internet access through a satellite company, but “it was super sketchy,” Scott, 45, said. “It was in and out all the time, and it just wasn’t worth the high cost I was paying.”
None of her limited options provided anything more reliable or affordable, so she just went without. Neither she nor her son are big Web people, anyway, so they made do. She worked in Alpena at the time and logged on to her work’s WiFi if she needed to.
In a pinch, she’d park at schools or libraries to access their internet from the parking lot.
“We were pretty resourceful,” she said.
But that was before COVID-19.
Before shutdowns designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus meant she had to work from home, her 6-year-old son had to learn from home, and streaming movies at home was about all there was for entertainment.
Then it became clear the Scotts were among the nearly a third of Northeast Michiganders without access to reliable internet or the minimum internet speeds the federal government says are necessary for modern life.
While most Michiganders can count on enough bandwidth pumped directly into their homes’ wiring to do all the livestreaming, shopping, emailing, and Netflix binge-watching they need, a sizable portion of residents in rural Northeast Michigan have to get creative to access the 21st century economy.
Far north of the Scotts, Nicolle Wieschowski, 33, and her three children access the Web at their Presque Isle home through Wieschowski’s smartphone data plan.
Wieschowski is a teacher in Alpena Public Schools, where students have learned entirely online for weeks after coronavirus infections surged in November. When her kids — ages 12, 8, and 6 — are home with her, that data plan has to service 12 Google Meets sessions a day.
She pays for an unlimited data plan on her phone, but it’s really “unlimited” in name only. After a certain amount of data is used up, speeds slow down.
The Wieschowskis hit that threshold late last month, with several days to go before her billing cycle restarted and the data refilled.
But the phone did the job.
The phone plan “always worked for me,” Wieschowski said. Not just for work and her kids’ school, but for streaming Netflix and other diversions. “It’s always been enough to satisfy our needs.”
When the coronavirus roared again and students were sent home to learn, Wieschowski looked into buying a separate hotspot — a small device that, like her phone, uses cell signals to broadcast wireless internet connections. But she didn’t want to pay for a whole extra plan and her neighbors said on social media the service was spotty, anyway.
She considered connecting her home to the lone internet service provider in her area, but it would cost an extra $50 a month, with a long-term contract required. Unsure how long she’d need that service — how long the virus would keep her and her kids at home — she didn’t want to invest.
So her phone plan does its job, especially since her cell provider expanded her data at no cost because she’s a teacher.
There are hiccups. The phone she uses to connect her home to the Web is the same phone she uses to communicate all day long.
“When I leave, the internet goes with me,” Wieschowski said. “If somebody needs the internet when I’m not present, we do have to problem-solve that, but we’re usually able to figure that out. We have a pretty good support system.”
‘IT’S SUCH A CHALLENGE’
When the coronavirus first hit in the spring, Scott, of Harrisville, knew she could no longer go without internet access, so she bought a hotspot device so her son could access classes online.
Her boss at the Alcona County Commission on Aging bought several hotspots for agency employees working at home.
So she has two. One for her son for online school work and one for her to work from home.
Both are “unlimited,” but “it’s horrible how quickly your data can go right through the roof,” Scott said.
Especially when they’re both working. Even with her on her hotspot and her son, Declan, on his, the internet lags or drops out all together.
“It would reconnect quite quickly, but it got annoying when, in a 45-minute-to-an-hour meeting, when I would disconnect and log back in like a dozen times,” Scott said.
Her personal device makes it “hard for Netflix or Hulu or anything. It gets very slow. And, a lot of times, if I can get through one half-hour program, then I’m lucky. When my kid wants to watch cartoons, I get one or two in before it just wants to shut down.”
Scott moved up to Harrisville a couple years ago from Toledo, where internet connectivity wasn’t a problem. The change was a shock, she said, but she accepts it as a part of living away from the big-city hustle.
“I think it’s just a rural area everywhere around here, so I’ve just been dealing with it and making the best of it,” she said.
Still, the mother said, the coronavirus has exacerbated the problem.
“It’s such a challenge,” Scott said, “and I know everybody’s feeling it in some way or another.”
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.
About this series
For the past several weeks, The News has collected data and interviewed experts and residents to determine not just where internet connection is lacking in Northeast Michigan but the impact that has on residents and the region’s day-to-day life:
SATURDAY: How poor is internet connection here, and what’s being done to fix it?
MONDAY: How is health care affected by subpar internet connection?
TUESDAY: How is our economy affected by a lack of internet?
WEDNESDAY: How do seniors live in this connected world?
TODAY: How do rural residents get online?
Visit TheAlpenaNews.com to see past stories and interactive graphics.