Published in Economic Development

Rural broadband access in focus as school, health care, work shift to homes

BY Sunday, April 12, 2020 07:37pm

The widespread closure of schools, workplaces and in-person doctor visits has highlighted inequities in reliable internet access across Michigan, particularly among rural and low-income residents.

With far more residents and students working and studying from home, advocates say a long-term strategy and perhaps alternative funding models are required to address the need.

“The current COVID-19 crisis and all of the related actions and impacts have certainly revealed the access inequity in Michigan when it comes to broadband,” said Travis Alden, director of business development for The Right Place Inc. in Grand Rapids. In some parts of rural West Michigan, more than a quarter of residents don’t have access to broadband or a device for remote-learning, like a computer or tablet.

“This is staggering and a significant hurdle to overcome during the new normal we’re experiencing right now,” Alden said. 

The Right Place has worked in multiple rural communities to expand this access, including Montcalm County, and some cities and school districts have stepped in with new broadband connections and devices for underserved students.

“We know that access to reliable, affordable broadband connectivity is a crucial competitive advantage for Michigan’s communities and for the state as a whole,” Alden said.

According to data compiled by the NCTA — The Internet & Television Association, 96.5 percent of Michigan residents have access to broadband. But that includes the entire state and urban areas, which offset the lower numbers found in rural counties.

Broadband refers to high-speed internet that’s always on, and includes fiber, wireless, satellite, digital subscriber line and cable.

Dan Manning, community technology adviser for Connect Michigan, said the state has about 250,000 children, or roughly 150,000 households, “that don’t really have any internet access at home today.”

“Then you throw in tele-health issues and people being able to access doctors — you need that kind of connection just to get access to information and exchange messages,” Manning said.

Moreover, physical access to broadband is just one component.

“If you look at all of the people who don’t have access, it’s not because they don’t have physical access and infrastructure,” Manning said. “A number of families don’t have access even in metropolitan areas, which tends to be more related to costs and access to equipment like computers, tablets and phones.”

Connect Michigan — the state chapter of a national group — has partnered with the Michigan Public Service Commission for nearly a decade to expand access to broadband internet in unserved areas. The MPSC oversees grant funding in the Connecting Michigan Communities program.

In 2018, the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks also issued a report outlining several goals over the next decade, including accomplishing 1 Gigabit per second connections for all Michigan residents by 2026. As of the 2018 report, Michigan ranked 30th among states for broadband availability.

Federal funding

The Federal Communications Commission earlier this year launched the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to expand rural broadband, which follows previous programs aimed at private telecommunications companies. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture also allocated $600 million to target rural broadband efforts.

“Certainly it’s been helping,” Manning said of the federal funding. “There’s still more out there that needs to be done.”

The federal stimulus bill signed into law on March 27 also allocates $200 million for the FCC to expand its Connected Care telehealth program, $100 million for the USDA’s ReConnect program, $50 million to improve library networks, and $25 million for distance learning and telemedicine grants.

David Waymire, spokesperson for the Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association, said the “vast majority” of Michigan residents have physical access to high-speed internet, while roughly 30 percent of people who do have physical access choose not to use it.

Waymire, representing major telecommunications companies, said Comcast and Charter Communications have rolled out programs to connect low-income customers. Meanwhile, it’s expensive for private companies to service secluded residents: It costs about $45,000 a mile to build high-speed internet infrastructure, Waymire said.

“If there’s only three people on the road in that mile, it’s rather difficult,” he said.

Alternative models, suppliers

While federal funding has helped lower costs for private companies to expand broadband access, it’s generally not economical for them to do so for relatively few customers in rural areas.

Within the past decade, cooperatives that provide electricity to rural members have increasingly stepped into the broadband space. 

Midwest Energy and Communications recently completed a five-year fiber buildout in Southwest Michigan that connected more than 12,000 customers. 

In 2018, Portland-based HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative started a five-year, $73 million fiber build-out project, hoping to reach all 26,000 of its members. (It’s about 10 percent there.) The co-op’s territory spans 13 counties through mid-Michigan, roughly from Mt. Pleasant to Lansing.

With electric infrastructure reaching these rural residents, adding a broadband connection is a natural fit.

“We heard again and again from our membership about this deep need in rural areas for good and reliable internet service,” said Kacey Thelen, HomeWorks’ marketing manager. “We were kind of blown away by how much sense it made financially. Not only is it providing great service to underserved people, but it wasn’t going to put us at risk to lose money.”

While its members are serviced by telecom companies, the co-op has heard complaints about poor reliability and customer service.

“We have that unique ability to care about that one house or five houses,” she said.

Other options are coming straight from local governments, and public funding or public-private partnerships may draw renewed attention.

“This is a capitalist market. Private companies are building it, and that’s worked well to get to 90 percent (of people),” Manning said. “Getting to that last 10 percent of households, we need to get a little creative to get that done. … A lot of people after going through this experience are looking at broadband as more of a local utility like water, gas and electricity, and there ought to be some effort to provide that for free to everyone across the country.”

The need for reliable and high-quality internet access is just one lesson amid the coronavirus fallout.

“It really has gotten everyone’s attention that broadband is a critical service and needs to be provided to everyone,” Manning said. “I think we’ll see a lot of repercussions on that with more money, more focus and more attention.”

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