The State of Michigan's new online map of free Wi-Fi hotspots (Image via Connected Nation Michigan)
The State of Michigan's new online map of free Wi-Fi hotspots (Image via Connected Nation Michigan)

Closing Michigan’s internet gap will require more than mapping free hotspots, says one expert — it will require a huge paradigm shift. 

MICHIGAN — For many Michigan families, lack of reliable internet makes everyday life extraordinarily difficult. 

Figures show that some half a million Michiganders don’t have reliable internet service. That means they find their businesses and schoolwork threatened, they struggle to access online services like health care, and they face barriers paying bills, keeping in contact, and connecting to the world. 

These issues are compounded by the mass transition to remote and distance learning, work, and services that followed the coronavirus pandemic. 

Now, a new partnership between the State of Michigan and Connected Nation Michigan offers an online map of free Wi-Fi hotspots to assist residents who currently lack internet access at home. 

So far more than 300 Wi-Fi hotspot locations are available from the parking lots of public schools, libraries, and other locations across the state. In addition to the location, the map also contains details on how to access the Wi-Fi hotspots’ networks.  

“While public Wi-Fi hotspots are not a replacement for home connectivity, they are essential for those needing connectivity during a time when education, work, and healthcare are relying more and more on online platforms,” said Eric Frederick, Executive Director of Connected Nation Michigan. “These public and private locations are helping Michiganders stay connected.” 

The FCC estimates almost 6% of Michigan’s population — 573,426 people — have no broadband providers in their area, and only 62% have more than one option for high-speed internet. This lack of workable internet access affects a wide range of Michiganders, including low-income and working class families, business owners, farmers, elementary through college students, and more. 

Despite coming from different backgrounds, they all have one thing in common: Lack of internet access is holding them back. 

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“We know that more work must be done to ensure residents and students throughout the state have accessible and affordable broadband internet service,” said Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) commissioner Tremaine Phillips. “Making these Wi-Fi hotspot locations easily available is an important bridge to increasing the accessibility of these critical services during this difficult time.”  

Internet: The Latest Human Right

One expert in technology and economic development in rural America provided The ‘Gander with insight into that work left to be done. 

Jean Hardy is an incoming assistant professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Media and Information. He said the state’s map of free Wi-Fi hotspots, even coupled with the few grants awarded to Michigan providers aimed at expanding broadband access to unserved rural areas, barely scratches the surface of what it would take to get workable internet access to folks currently living without it. 

“Those Wi-Fi hotspots are all over the state of Michigan, so it says something about people,” Hardy said, “and what people value is public resources. The internet should be a public utility and should be a guaranteed human right, just like water and electricity and healthcare. It’s weird to say that, but that’s important. One of the issues that I have with these public Wi-Fi maps is it just gives all these politicians a reason to pat themselves on the back and be like, ‘Look, we did a thing for people,’ and to encourage people to go to public Wi-Fi hotspots like this. 

“But at the end of the day, it’s a bandaid. It doesn’t address any of the systemic issues. It doesn’t address the major barrier, which is infrastructure investment. And wired broadband or even wired DSL, which is rapidly sort of useless. In the age of all streaming everything and on-demand data demands from the Internet of Things, technology, etc., a wired internet infrastructure is the necessity. It’s what people need. There’s this effort really to sort of map opportunities, but there’s no effort to actually fill in the gaps between those opportunities. So we’re going to sit here and we’re going to show you where all these world Wi-Fi hotspots are, but what about the people that live an hour away from the nearest free Wi-Fi hotspot? What are we doing for them? Nothing.” 

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How to Free the Internet in Our Local Communities

Hardy said leaders are going to have to approach broadening internet access from a whole new perspective in order to make the change they’re after. 

“We’ve been investing millions of dollars a year into expanding broadband, and where does it have us? Nowhere,” Hardy said. “We’re still here, we’re still talking about people that don’t have access to broadband. We’re still talking about all of these programs to try to get low-income kids in urban and rural areas access to the internet. And at the end of the day, we need massive infrastructure programs. And the way that we go about it isn’t going to solve the problem either, because the way that we go about it is market-driven for the most part. We all know that markets don’t serve poor people and markets are rarely incentivized to serve rural people because there’s no money in it.” 

Michiganders don’t have to wait for others to act meaningfully on this issue on their behalf. Hardy told The ‘Gander what demands people can make of local leaders to enact change in their own communities where wide access to broadband internet is a problem. 

“All local lawmakers, local policymakers at every level should be demanding utility-based internet access that’s not market-driven, that is nonprofit in nature and that is designed in partnership with local communities. You see this popping up all over the place — there are tribal organizations in the U.P. that have their own sort of municipal tribal internet, and places like Northern Michigan University have their educational access network, which is a wireless internet service that they provide, and it’s very affordable and relatively good speeds. They provide internet to a lot of people in places that wouldn’t normally have internet. 

“So there are these alternatives. Much of the focus has been sort of driven by market interventions and particularly getting the big internet providers to expand where they provide services. They aren’t going to be the solution that people in these communities need. It’s going to be more local utility-driven solutions and treating internet like a public utility rather than a private good.”

Freeing the Internet Will Require a Paradigm Shift 

Hardy addressed the several active programs and grants centered on increasing investment in and access to broadband in Michigan. In a news release, the State of Michigan detailed: 

  • A $23 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Broadband ReConnect Program aimed at expanding broadband access to unserved rural areas
  • A more than $1.8 million grant from the the Federal Communications Commission’s COVID-19 Telehealth Program to help health care providers offer connected care services to patients at their homes or mobile locations
  • The Department of Technology, Management and Budget (DTMB)’s Connecting Michigan Communities (CMIC) Grant Program, which will award $18 million in grants for projects that extend broadband service into unserved areas in Michigan   

Despite what may seem like large amounts of money going toward increasing broadband internet access, Hardy told The ‘Gander these funds just aren’t enough to affect real change. 

“If you look at, for example, the USDA did their ReConnect Program, the hundreds of millions of dollars a year that they dedicate to expanding broadband infrastructure. And this year in May, they announced a round of funding in Michigan in the amount of $23 million. And that is going to two providers downstate, in sort of rural western Michigan. It’s nearly $23 million and the projects are only going to extend broadband infrastructure …  

“I did the math and it’s like, $1,100 to $1,200 per person just to extend infrastructure to them. This does not mean that they will actually get internet. This just means that someone will provide them internet if they need it. 

“So, we’re talking literally tens of billions, if not hundreds of billions of dollars, that would need to be invested nationwide in order to get rural folks internet. And meanwhile we’re bailing out massive corporations with trillions of dollars. What would it look like if we stopped subsidizing corporations and instead decided that we wanted a massive public infrastructure project to give people internet? The kinds of jobs and everything that would create?”

Perhaps one day Michiganders will be able to see such a public infrastructure project and its positive economic and sociocultural impact. Until then, half a million in our state are still struggling.