More than a million Michiganders don’t have access to broadband internet. Here’s what it’s like to finally connect.
CONSTANTINE, Mich.—At the top of a hill near US 131 in southwest Michigan, Autumn Lynn King lives among Michigan woodlands and fields. Her home is far removed from even downtown Constantine, let alone the hustle and bustle of Kalamazoo.
It can be easy to feel disconnected living in a rural area, she explained. So when her electric co-op started offering high-speed internet service three years ago, she suddenly felt her world change. But she’s keenly aware of how fortunate she is, when people in the rural community just north of Constantine lack the access she has.
“It opened the world to us,” King told The ‘Gander. “We still have friends who have no option for [broadband] internet in rural Three Rivers.”
King has had broadband for several years, but Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration has been working diligently on bridging the digital divide between King and her friends in Three Rivers.
In December, Michigan announced $300 million in grants to service providers to expand broadband access to communities in every county in the state.
In a statement about the state securing funding for rural broadband last year, Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who is helping to lead the Connecting Michigan Taskforce, said, “The internet access divide is real and must be addressed to provide opportunity for all Michiganders to thrive. As we work to recover from the ongoing pandemic here in Michigan, strengthening our infrastructure remains a key component of our economic recovery, and broadband and high-speed internet are as foundational to our infrastructure as strong roads and bridges.”
But even as the state has succeeded in securing funding to expand broadband and internet infrastructure in rural areas, there is only so much Michigan can do on its own, particularly as the pandemic has left the state’s budget exhausted and overstressed.
Enter the Biden administration. In a move that deliberately echoes the Rural Electrification Act from the Great Depression that increased access of power lines to farm lands and rural populations, President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan would provide $100 billion to “future-proof” broadband access for all Americans. Part of that is extending broadband service to places in rural Michigan where it doesn’t currently exist, and part is making it more affordable where it does.
It’s no secret that Americans by and large hate internet service providers (ISPs). Musicians have even written songs about that frustration. In large part this is due to Americans paying some of the highest prices to get online and getting some of the worst service for it compared to other countries. That is, when we can get online at all.
Most Michiganders don’t have many options when it comes to internet access, but a startling number of rural Michiganders don’t have any choice at all. At the start of 2021, about 1.2 million Michiganders did not have a permanent fixed broadband connection at home. Just a few years ago, King was one just like them.
“Our only option was hot spots from internet providers,” King said. “[It was] the most frustrating feeling one can have. So many [things to do online] and we weren’t able to connect to any of them other than single user Facebook; one computer being used and nothing else would connect.”
King said not having broadband felt like living in the past. She fears what it would’ve been like during the pandemic if her children were still in school without broadband access, which Michiganders have struggled to navigate over the past year.
Even the bare minimum speeds for a single person to work from home during the pandemic, 10 megabits per second, isn’t achievable statewide. In the United Kingdom, that speed is considered a legal right. In the United States, it doesn’t even meet the federal definition of broadband, which is 25-megabit-per-second speeds. Almost none of the Upper Peninsula has that kind of connection or better available.
“We’ll make sure every single American has access to high quality affordable high-speed internet,” Biden said in a March speech. “We’re going to drive down the price for families who have service now and make it easier for families who don’t have affordable service to be able to get it now.”
State and federal efforts could help connect everyone from Three Rivers to Grand Marais.
King is excited to welcome them to 2021’s internet.
“There is a whole new world waiting for you,” she said.