“I couldn’t complete my homework because I couldn’t find the internet.”
Sounds like the digital era’s version of “The dog ate my homework.” Yet for thousands of Michigan’s children, it’s not an excuse but a reality that even has its own term: “homework gap.”
“A large portion of students that have a lot of internet access at school go home in the evenings with an expectation … that they complete assignments at home,” said Joe Sawasky, president and CEO of Ann Arbor-based Merit Network. “And the sad fact is that a large proportion” don’t have standard broadband access.
“I’d characterize it as a crisis in Michigan.”
Sawasky expanded on the implications May 30 during the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference, moderating a panel titled “Digital Inclusion: #FixTheDamnInternet for Michigan Students.”
Participating in the discussion were:
- Johannes Bauer, Quello chair for media and information policy and chairman of the department of media and information at Michigan State University
- Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II
- Marc Hudson, founder and CEO of Rocket Fiber
What Sawasky called an issue of “digital inclusion and digital equity” is quantifiable: More than 360,000 Michigan homes lack the lowest level of standard broadband internet, affecting an estimated 27% of the K-12 students in the state.
Complicating matters is that the solution is not one-size-fits-all. “We believe the internet is the great equalizer,” Sawasky said. “And right now, it’s unequal.”
In rural areas, improving internet access means surmounting barriers of climate, distance and population density. Installing infrastructure is difficult and costly.
In urban areas, the problem is affordability—an end-of-the-month question of “Am I putting food on the table, or am I buying an internet subscription?” Hudson said.
According to the Michigan Broadband Report, the goal three years from now is that every resident and business in the state will have what the Federal Communications Commission defines as minimal access: 3 Mbps minimum upload and 25 Mbps download. And by 2026, the goal is 1 gigabyte access.
Goals take money. In Detroit alone, Hudson said, rolling out 1 gig would cost $300 million to $400 million.
All three panelists agreed that the broadband challenge going forward requires collaboration from internet providers and governments. And the solutions in Detroit will differ from those in Delta County in the Upper Peninsula, Gilchrist said.
“I am confident that if Michigan communities are better connected, if Michigan children are better connected,” Gilchrist said, “that the state will be the better for it.”
Download the complete Mackinac Policy Conference Digital Damnation white paper, or view a recording of the presentation.