Much of Northeast Michigan connected, but residents say help still needed
ALPENA — According to a map, residents along U.S.-23 north of Rogers City have all kinds of ways to connect to the internet.
Ken Rasche, who actually lives along the road, says the map is totally wrong.
That’s why, a few years ago, in a desperate attempt to access the internet, Rasche installed an expensive, 35-foot antenna next to his back porch. Still, the signals he pulls from a nearby tower are not strong enough to support a video call to his doctor.
Business, health care, education, communication, and entertainment have moved online in recent decades, a trend only amplified this year as the coronavirus forced much of daily life to be done remotely.
Yet Rasche and many of his Up North neighbors struggle to stay connected to that increasingly digital world.
The region’s aging population — old enough that they grew up without computers and sometimes lack the skills to stay connected — adds to the digital divide. So does the fact that 17% of Northeast Michiganders — including more than a third of Alcona County residents — live below the poverty line and struggle to afford connection.
But the biggest issue is that the Federal Communications Commission says about 6,700 homes across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties — about a third of the region’s residents — lack the infrastructure for internet connection that’s reliable or fast enough for the modern world.
Even among those who the government says ought to be able to get online, many say the available options don’t meet their needs. But, because the government says they have options to connect, internet providers struggle to qualify for the grants necessary to build the infrastructure that would help.
That could be why Rasche said he’s heard a lot of talk about help for rural connectivity, but, so far, “we haven’t seen it happen.”
‘WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE ACCESS’
Near the Alpena-Presque Isle county line, Ashley Simpson’s rural home is too low to get a wireless signal from antennas on nearby towers, and too remote to get wired internet.
Simpson and her neighbors tried to get an internet company to run cables into their rural neighborhood, but they were quoted an exorbitant sum.
So residents remain frustrated.
Check out the interactive graphic below showing data on Northeast Michigan connectivity. Story continues below graphic.
“It’s hard to live in a world of technology when you don’t have access to the technology that you need,” Simpson said.
It costs a company like Spectrum or Charter about $60,000 to run internet cables one mile, according to Tom Stephenson, community technology advisor with Connected Nation Michigan.
In a rural area, internet companies have a hard time justifying such expense when they may not connect enough customers to cover the cost.
So providers turn to government funds and other grants.
Just this week, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. announced $12.6 million in federal funding would be used over the next 10 years to install high-speed internet access at more than 14,000 locations across Alpena, Presque Isle, Montmorency, and Alcona counties.
This spring, the state Legislature’s coronavirus relief package appropriated $25 million to help schools provide devices and internet connections to students, especially those from low-income families.
In October, internet provider Barger Creek Wireless received a more than $3 million grant to improve broadband in Montmorency and Oscoda counties, while Allband Communications got $3.5 million to improve internet access in Alpena, Alcona, and Iosco counties.
In May, Presque Isle Township said it would use a $100,000 grant to bring broadband to homes within township boundaries. Presque Isle Electric and Gas Co-op officials hope that, by spring, they can use grant money to provide all PIE&G customers with fiber optic broadband service. The Alcona County Economic Development Corp. is trying to identify sites where fiber optic cable and other forms of internet access could be installed.
Stephenson, of Connected Nation, is part of a state government task force investigating broadband expansion opportunities and community engagement in 18 of the state’s least-serviced communities — including some in Montmorency and Presque Isle counties.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed that we’re going to see some major improvements here in the very near future,” Stephenson said.
But obstacles remain.
Check out a video below of Northeast Michiganders talking about their experiences with the internet. Viewing on mobile? Turn your device horizontally for the best viewing experience.
‘ABSOLUTELY … TERRIBLE’
Even with grants, Allband has had an uphill climb to provide internet access, between the need to keep enough capital on-hand to meet matching requirements for grants and the challenges of rocky soil and tree-covered hills that make it hard to dig trenches or send signals through the air.
And then there’s those maps.
Chris Stephens, an Alpena resident starting his own internet service company, hopes to apply for government grants earmarked for expanding rural internet access.
But the money may not be available because the FCC says there’s already enough access in many of those areas.
That’s not what residents experience.
According to the FCC, Tammy Susewitz and her family have their pick of satellite, fixed wireless, or cable internet access at their Maple Ridge home.
Susewitz, however, says her only options are inadequate for running their from-home construction business and support their kids’ videoconcerenced school classes. They’ve had to drive to places with free WiFi to try to get online, but those places are often clogged with others trying the same thing.
“We’ve made due in the past,” Susewitz said, “but this ‘new normal’ has absolutely been terrible for us.”
Digital divide, by the numbers
The share of residents without internet access adequate for average usage as of September:
Alpena County: 8%
Alcona County: 38%
Montmorency County: 40%
Presque Isle County: 33%
Source: Connected Nation Michigan