High-speed internet access is something that has become as essential to everyday life as electricity or running water. However, many in Northern Michigan are unable to get reliable connection to their homes either due to lack of infrastructure or the cost of internet service.
Reliance on internet connection was steadily increasing and after the COVID-19 pandemic began, it became nearly impossible to live without. While many schools and workplaces have returned to in-person settings, remote work still seems to be sticking around.
More and more, job postings and applications, government aid, housing advertisements, news, etc. are existing online only, making it difficult for people without connection to access the resources they need.
The last few years has seen a push to improve broadband infrastructure from the federal, state and local levels, but the process can be long, complicated and costly.
Lack of broadband infrastructure is a major barrier to internet access for Northern Michigan residents. The internet is actually a system of fiber optic cables running underground and along above-ground poles. These incredibly strong cables are made from fibers that are bundled together and transmit information through light, rather than electricity, making transmitting information significantly faster.
Fiber is placed underground or run through aerial lines and is broken up into what is called middle mile and last mile. Merit Network Director of Communications Pierette Dagg described middle mile as a highway that connects municipalities and institutions like universities. Last mile is built out from the middle mile fiber and connects individual homes.
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Organizations like Merit Network have placed a significant amount of middle mile fiber. According to Dagg, Merit owns and maintains 4,400 miles.
The challenge facing Michigan’s rural communities is building the expensive last mile infrastructure to individual homes. This is a multi-million dollar expense that most municipalities cannot afford without grants, federal and state funding or the help of private organizations. Telecommunication companies like Verizon or AT&T have little incentive to invest in the infrastructure because, even with paying customers, they likely wouldn’t see a return on investment.
The issue of broadband infrastructure is not one that can be solved by one entity. Federal, state and local governments do not own all of the fiber in the ground — neither do private companies or nonprofit organizations.
The fiber that exists has been put there over time by combined and individual efforts from different entities and everyone benefits from it being there. However, with so many involved in the process, building broadband infrastructure is not fast or easy.
Aside from cost, Dagg said most local municipalities don’t have the technical knowledge or the manpower to take on such an infrastructure project, which is why the organization does educational outreach.
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“The hardest thing is to get all these people to work together,” said Eric Grandstaff, a broadband consultant in Petoskey. “If we were to come together as a multi-governmental group, you’re able to share those resources and the grant funds to cover comprehensively, all these areas. You’ll make a lot more progress.”
Because fiber is not laid down or tracked by one organization it is not fully known where it does and does not exist. Which is why some efforts to improve broadband infrastructure involve mapping what is already there and identifying gap areas.
Grandstaff, who volunteers with the Northern Lakes Economic Alliance, helped the organization form a group to do an inventory of infrastructure in Northern Michigan in 2004.
Grandstaff said they didn’t get a lot of help from the telecommunication operators like Verizon and AT&T, so they turned to power cooperatives.
“We started bugging people at the power co-ops,” Grandstaff said. “Great Lakes Energy we felt had the biggest capacity to do something about this empty use of backbone that Merit had built along with some other companies, Peninsula Fiber, also Everstream, a couple of others.”
With the help of the power co-ops, the broadband group was able to build a backbone of fiber from Grand Rapids to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, as well as map out much of the fiber in Northern Michigan.
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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently working on updating its broadband maps. While it gathers data, consumers can share their broadband experiences or file a formal complaint through the website, and that information helps the FCC find out where the coverage gaps are.
The FCC also developed a speed test app for consumers to test their mobile and fixed connections. The app provides the test results and gathers data on network performance.
There are two kinds of fiber infrastructure: underground and aerial. Running fiber underground offers an advantage over using aerial lines because the fiber is less susceptible to wear and not in danger of being damaged in storms. However, the cost of placing it is higher. Often, fiber is placed during road construction and other infrastructure projects that involve digging up ground, but if fiber is needed where no construction is happening, it may mean digging in order to place the fiber.
Aerial fiber, while less expensive and easier to build, can end up costing more in the long run because of the need for maintenance and the risk of damage. If maintained, fiber can last for 30 years or longer, according to Grandstaff.
An issue of equity
Limited internet access in rural areas became even more apparent after COVID-19 locked down most public spaces and many moved to remote work environments. Those who didn’t have reliable access struggled to work and attend school. Even as many return to in-person settings, for others, remote work doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
One group that has faced significant barriers when it comes to accessing internet is students. For families living in rural areas, broadband infrastructure doesn’t reach their homes, making it impossible for them to access high-speed internet. Aside from infrastructure, high monthly costs have put internet access out of reach for many.
According to a study conducted by Michigan State University and the Quello Center in March 2020, Michigan students with fast home internet have higher GPAs on average. The study also found that students with no access to home internet do slightly better than students who rely on cell phone access.
When COVID-19 forced schools into an online format, Wolverine Community School Superintendent and K-12 principal Matthew Baughman said the district spent approximately $20,000 on devices like Chromebooks, $5,000 on hotspots and a $1,500 monthly charge to power those hotspots.
The district has enough computers for all 260 Wolverine students to take home, but the issue that arose was that the Verizon unlimited internet hotspots they had purchased only had high-speed for the first 10-12 gigabytes of data. Once that was used up, the service dropped down to 3G or less.
“So to give a little comparison, one hour of a Zoom meeting is about two gigs worth of data. So if a student is trying to use that hotspot for a day’s worth of online learning, that might be six hours,” Baughman said. “So what we found was that really after two or three days out of a month, they had exhausted the high-speed data that each of those hotspots came with. And then the speeds for the rest of the month were not really fast enough to support students in their online learning.”
To meet the needs of students who couldn’t join online classes, teachers put together weekly work packets for parents to pick up or were delivered to students’ homes.
When planning for the 2020-21 school year, Wolverine Community School conducted a survey to find out how many families had non-mobile internet access at home and found that only 60 percent did, leaving 40 percent of students struggling to keep up in an increasingly online-based education system.
One of those students is Jessie Lawrence, a Wolverine senior who struggled to get through classes when schools went online at the beginning of the pandemic. Without internet access at home, Lawrence was given weekly work packets, but had no way of fully learning the material without the help of his teachers.
“It was ridiculously hard,” Lawrence said. “I could not pay attention to save my life. It got to the point where I kind of just gave up because all that was happening to me was I was getting packets of work and I needed to ask questions (but) I couldn’t ask questions.”
The only interaction Lawrence got with a school employee was when a lunch worker or other staff member would drop off food once a week. Lawrence said he would try to ask questions about his work but didn’t receive much help.
When in-person school became an option, Lawrence returned right away and said he was able to catch up on work he had fallen behind on while learning from home.
While Lawrence received a Chromebook and hotspot, he knew right away it wouldn’t work because his friends that had Verizon as their phone carrier would always lose service by his house.
“So I kind of laughed at them handing me the hotspot,” Lawrence said. “And I tested it out just to prove it. I tested it, it didn’t work, I took it back.”
Wolverine Community School was not the only one who used Chromebooks and hotspots to get students connected. Public Schools of Petoskey Superintendent Christopher Parker said when the schools shut down, students who didn’t have internet access received work packets instead of meeting online. The following fall, the school purchased more Chromebooks so students and staff would have a means of teaching and learning online. They also deployed around 120 hotspots to families that didn’t have internet access.
Parker said the hotspots worked well enough, but were not ideal.
“So the hotspots work fine,” Parker said. “This is the story of the last two and a half years, we needed a solution, we kind of got that. Over 100 kids and staff, they didn’t have Wi-Fi at home. Is it the best? No. We get pretty spoiled when we’ve got high-speed internet and it’s a significant factor for those kids that have it, from a learning perspective, over those kids that don’t.”
According to Branden Wheeler, Petoskey’s director of finance and HR, the average monthly bill for the hotspots during the 2020-21 school year was $4,500. After returning to in-person learning for 2021-22, several devices were deactivated, with a few kept for extenuating circumstances. This dropped the monthly bill to $1,200.
“I think this is a bigger issue. It’s also an issue of equity. The reality is that students and families that live in rural areas do not have access to the same opportunities (as) students and families who live in urban areas,” Baughman said.
“It’s not just education that students and families don’t have access to but also news and information about public assistance or tax credits, for example,” he added. “So they just do not have the same kind of access to services and programs that are supported by our state and our federal government. And so I personally don’t believe that that’s fair. And I think that it would be really wonderful if the state assisted counties that were in rural areas, struggling with broadband internet to build a better infrastructure.”
Closing the gaps
Over the last several years, efforts have been made to improve internet access in Northern Michigan. At the state level, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established Michigan’s High-Speed Internet Office in June 2021 to address the lack of internet access due to limited infrastructure and cost of service. Whitmer signed a budget plan on Wednesday, March 30 that allocated $250 million to building and improving broadband infrastructure, especially in rural areas, as well as lowering the cost of access.
That money will allow the High-Speed Internet Office to hire up to eight employees and will fund projects across Michigan. The funding will go towards both middle mile and last mile infrastructure through programs like the Connecting Michigan Communities Grant Program, which aims to fill gaps in communities with little internet access. The state is encouraging local governments to partner with internet providers, nonprofits and service organizations to bring connection to these gap areas.
“I’m excited about what it can mean for the creativity of Michiganders,” said Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. “There’s people who have ideas and want to start new businesses and new enterprises and make new connections in Michigan or around the world. The internet opens all those doors and opportunities. I’ve experienced that personally, in my own life, what it can mean to have that access. And that’s why I think it’s so important to people in Michigan as well.”
Gilchrist and Whitmer set an ambitious state goal of having 100 percent access to high-speed internet and 95 percent adoption by households over the next five years.
“This $250 million will help us take a big step toward that and so we’re excited to be aggressive here to connect our people,” Gilchrist said.
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Between September 2020 and January 2021, Cheboygan County conducted a survey of 1,126 households and 52 businesses to get an idea of the state of internet access in the county.
The survey results showed that 44 percent of Cheboygan residents have a fixed connection, 26 percent of households rely on non-fixed connection and 30 percent of households have no connection at all. The survey also found that the average monthly cost of internet service is $73 per month.
Cheboygan County partnered with Connected Nation to conduct the survey. Connected Nation is a nonprofit that works to close broadband and digital technology gaps.
“What we found happened is, with COVID, we had a lot of folks come up (to the area) and they were able to work remote,” said Sharen Lange, president of the Cheboygan Economic Development Group.
“And so in the past, during those peak vacation times, we had enough internet available to satisfy everyone’s needs. Now, we have this huge new demand where everyone is hot-spotting to do their work, we have students at home who are now engaged in education. Our telehealth blueprint is expanding, Munson and McLaren (hospitals), they all are doing telehealth much more than they used to and that’s putting a tremendous strain on what we had previously.”
Cheboygan is taking on a four-phase infrastructure project with Presque Isle Electric and Gas Co-op to build aerial fiber out to communities in need of connection. Phase one began in 2022 and is expected to be completed in 2023. It includes Onaway, Canada Creek, Black Lake, Tower, Fingerboard and Mullet Lake.
Phase two will begin in 2023 and wrap up in 2024. It will include Cheboygan, Hammond Bay, Millersburg, Hawks and Hagensville.
Phase three will happen from 2024 to 2025 and includes Posen, Grand Lake, Alpena, Hillman and Avalon.
The final phase will take place from 2025 to 2026 and include Beaver Lake, Atlanta and Lewiston.
One of the biggest initiatives to bring high-speed internet to Northern Michigan is through Great Lakes Energy’s Truestream service. Currently, Truestream is available in Petoskey, Gaylord and many surrounding areas, according to the coverage map available on its website. Corwith, Elmira and Central Lake are in the process of getting connected. Areas in Otsego, Kent, Antrim, Cass, Kalamazoo, Kalkaska and Grand Traverse counties are being explored as potential service areas for Truestream.
In 2016, the Eastern Upper Peninsula Regional Planning and Development Commission completed a survey to gauge access to internet and demand for improved connection in the region. The survey found that 86 percent of respondents wanted improved access to internet. While now out of date, the survey showed what many in the region already knew, that access to reliable internet is an issue residents want solutions to.
Now the commission is part of a project called the EUPConnect Collaborative, which is working to bring in broadband infrastructure to the Eastern U.P. by 2025 through collaboration between schools, townships and community partners.
“We can’t wait five years up here,” Commission Assistant Planner Mariah Goos said. “That’s why we need to connect collaborative off the ground.”
With pushes for funding over the last several years and the spike in awareness of the issue after the COVID-19 lockdown, significant strides are being made to build broadband infrastructure in Michigan’s rural areas, as well as bring down costs of service.
“Not unlike other communities in Northern Michigan, COVID really brought some of those (gaps) to the forefront and made internet access more along the lines of a public utility,” Lange said.
“It’s no longer a luxury to be able to connect, it’s a critical component of day-to-day life,” she said. “It’s been critical for our students, health care and those virtual doctor visits, the remote workforce that we’re seeing more and more, relocating or staying in Northern Michigan rather than going back to their urban areas and just our ability to function day-to-day. And so Cheboygan is really trying to get ahead and be proactive with that.”