Michiganders kept in the internet’s slow lane due to access or affordability concerns now have a state office designed to help overcome those roadblocks.
LANSING, Mich.—From living far enough from cities that high-speed internet simply isn’t available to not being able to afford it when it is, access to broadband is far from universal in Michigan. The coronavirus pandemic, with its remote work and distance learning, showed just how debilitating that can be.
So, Wednesday, June 2, Michigan established a new agency within the state government. The Michigan High-Speed Internet Office (MiHi) was established to bridge the digital divide and make broadband accessible and affordable for Michiganders.
Getting that access meant the world to Autumn Lynn King of Constantine, who told The ‘Gander that when her electricity co-op began offering broadband service, it made her feel like a part of the modern age. Before that point, it was like living a decade in the past.
“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.”
That has tangible effects on Michigan as a whole. With 865,000 Michigan households disconnected from high-speed internet, the state estimates Michigan misses out on over $2 billion in economic activity, which lowers the tide for the whole state, including those who do have broadband access.
Who Broadband Currently Leaves Behind
Whitmer’s office drew attention to the fact that those left out of broadband are, largely, people of color, rural Michiganders, and low-income families. This adds further disadvantage to those communities in an age where high-speed internet is essential for work, school, and paying bills.
The coronavirus pandemic showed in detail what that disadvantage looked like, especially for schools who had to ensure students could still learn when quarantined, as Kevin Polston, superintendent of Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in Wyoming explained to MLive.
“Having internet access so that children can learn while at home is critical to our operation,” Polston said. “The cost to internet may be as little as $10 a month, but that’s still $10 that a family isn’t spending on food or medicine or other basic needs for their family.”
And that $10 is a big deal in Polston’s district, where 95% of students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and 6% of families are unhoused. And the last option for those families to do things like attend class, access government services or pay bills were libraries, which also closed due to the coronavirus.
Saying Hello to MiHi
Because of that, getting more Michiganders like King online is a goal Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had when signing Executive Directive 2021-02 establishing MiHi.
“COVID-19 has only confirmed how the lack of high-speed internet access can cause too many Michiganders to struggle in their ability to engage in online learning, to use telemedicine to seek needed healthcare, to search for a new job or to take advantage of all the online resources,” she said. “A fully connected Michigan is essential for our state to reach its economic potential in the 21st century global economy.”
State Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown) told The ‘Gander that not only does he support MiHi, he is working to give them a head start in their goal of connecting Michiganders. He introduced legislation in late May that would treat broadband internet access as a public utility, like electricity or phone service, which he says would help lower rates and expand access.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that Internet access is an essential utility, and the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office is an important step toward getting every person and business connected,” said Camilleri. “I’m excited by the Governor’s and Lieutenant Governor’s commitment to prioritize this issue and ensuring there is a place within our state government that is focused on coordinating the work it will take to pursue this goal.”
MiHi will be housed in Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO). Working with LEO, MiHi will be in charge of developing internet coverage strategies for Michigan and develop the infrastructure needed to get that connectivity into Michiganders’ homes.
“Expanding high-speed internet access and affordability will help ensure that Michigan remains a world leader in innovation,” said LEO Acting Director Susan Corbin. “We need to make major investments to support digital inclusion and this office will be focused on leveraging every dollar available through the American Recovery Plan and other federal programs.”
Those programs could include the infrastructure plan proposed by President Joe Biden. The American Jobs Plan includes a massive effort to make broadband internet available, affordable, and reliable nationwide. He also wants the effort to be ready for an even more interconnected future.
In fact, the plan is intentionally designed to parallel the revolutionary and essential nature of high-speed internet by comparing it to the revolution brought by home electricity. The proposal is meant to mirror the Rural Electrification Act from the Great Depression that increased access of power lines to farm lands and rural populations.