Photo courtesy of Jacki Jameson / Graphic by Gander Staff
Photo courtesy of Jacki Jameson / Graphic by Gander Staff

Some 400,000 rural households lack broadband internet in Michigan, creating a digital divide that harms their educational, economic, and interpersonal lives. Here is the plan to fix that. 

WEST BRANCH, Mich.—Jacki Jameson was midway through her story when her daughter walked into the room. Jameson, 47, abruptly stopped and laughed, as if caught red-handed.

“She just walked in here and made a face at me,” Jameson said. 

Jameson was explaining how her daughter, who just graduated from high school, struggled to participate in virtual learning after her classes went online during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not because she didn’t work hard, but rather because Jameson and her family are among the hundreds of thousands of rural Michiganders who lack access to high-speed broadband internet at home.  

“As her school went virtual, she struggled to the point where her GPA actually dropped some, which was very frustrating for her as a senior,”Jameson told The ‘Gander. “She didn’t really miss classes, but she had connectivity issues to turn in assignments…her [connection] would go out and she missed part of a class trying to get reconnected.”

Jameson and her family live only two miles from the high school, and about 10 minutes from the heart of West Branch—a small, rural enclave of about 2,000 residents that serves as the county seat of Ogemaw County. But because Jameson’s house is located too far from the closest road, no internet service providers will offer her broadband access. 

‘I Fight With It All Day’: What It’s Like to Live Without High-Speed Internet

Jameson, who was born and raised in West Branch and attended the same high school as her daughter, lamented the lack of options. She previously subscribed to Dish Network’s internet service, but their data plan wasn’t unlimited and the connection was “dicey,” she said. 

“It’s very frustrating. I have tried multiple times to get internet out here,” Jameson said. “I have had to resort to purchasing iPads to maintain internet on them, plus using wifi hotspots.”

While that combination gets her family through most days, it’s not particularly convenient. It made it harder for Jameson to work from home during the pandemic (she’s an administrative assistant at the local mental health office), and it makes streaming movies and shows a nuisance. 

The connection can also get spotty when there’s bad weather or during holiday weekends, Jameson explained.

When “everybody and their brother comes up north, the internet is non-existent. I fight with it all day just to get my basic tasks done,” she said. 

Jameson and her family aren’t alone in facing these issues. More than 1.2 million Michigan households currently lack a permanent fixed broadband connection at home, according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.

Other research has shown that anywhere between 300,000 and 500,000 Michigan students lacked access to broadband at home during the pandemic. The problem is particularly stark in rural areas like West Branch, where access to broadband is more limited. 

The consequences of this “digital divide”—the gap between those who have access to computers and the internet and those who don’t—were already clear prior to the pandemic.  This was shown when a March 2020 study from Michigan State University found that students with high-speed, home internet access have a half a letter grade higher grade point average (GPA) than those without. 

But the pandemic unquestionably deepened the divide, as rural students like Jameson’s daughter struggled with distance learning and fell behind their peers in better-connected regions. 

Help is On The Way, if Biden Has Anything To Say About It

In laying bare the inequities of the country’s broadband infrastructure—a failing that disproportionately harms rural communities like those in Ogemaw County—the pandemic has also made the strongest possible case for federal investment to tackle the problem. And that’s exactly what President Joe Biden is fighting for.

As part of his Build Back Better Agenda, Biden has proposed investing a whopping $100 billion—on top of the billions the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and other federal agencies already spend on broadband each year—to build out the nation’s broadband network to reach 100% universal access. That number has since been lowered to $65 billion in negotiations with Republicans as part of a tentative bipartisan infrastructure deal. But even that level of investment would be a big win for rural America.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve comprehensively invested in broadband,” said Eric Frederick, the executive director of Connect Michigan, a non-profit focused on broadband issues. “Even $65 billion, that moves us so far to ubiquitous, future-proof technology that I can’t wait to see what we can do with it in the state.”

‘It’s Just A Hard-to-Imagine World’

While most Americans have access to high-speed broadband internet—which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines as a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed—millions living in rural parts of the country don’t.

The consequences of living without broadband internet aren’t just educational. The ability to shop online, for example, saves consumers money and studies have shown that these savings allow households with high-speed broadband access to save an estimated $1,850 per year. Research from the FCC shows that access broadband also helps small businesses and allows farms to increase their crop yields and reduce their operating costs, thus boosting revenues. 

Consequently, Michigan communities without reliable high-speed broadband access can be left behind economically.

“We really want people to be able to work, play, and live in the state of Michigan and some of our rural areas don’t have the speeds that are needed for us to do that,” said Sarah Tennant, a sector development director who focuses on cyber initiatives at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “We want them to have the opportunity to have these high-tech jobs and right now, broadband is the infrastructure that enables that.”

Statewide, the lack of broadband access results in between $1.8 and $2.7 billion in “potential economic benefit left unrealized among disconnected households,” according to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office.

Increased access to the internet has also been shown to help older adults feel less isolated, a critical finding as isolation is associated with worse health outcomes and even premature death.

Jennie Hoffman lives just west of the Mackinac Bridge in Saint Ignace. She had internet access at her previous property in town, and when she and husband purchased their new house several years ago, she was told that the former owners got by just fine with a hotspot. 

Unfortunately, that has not been her experience. She sought out all sorts of options through major telecom providers and satellite companies, but has struggled to get even basic connectivity through hotspots—with no viable options for high-speed internet.

“Where I live, there is no infrastructure,” she said. “There are portions of my community where even [with] the cell phone I have now with Verizon, I can’t make a phone call, I can’t receive a signal, can’t connect to the internet.”

That reality has left her feeling isolated. 

“It was frustrating on a social level first of all, foremost for me because I was unfamiliar with the community and I had a lot of connections that I was trying to build, but I couldn’t make,” she said.

“If you want to make a phone call to your mother, you can’t do it, you want to research something online, you can’t do it. You want to go check out your banking account, it doesn’t work. It’s just a hard-to-imagine world.”

How the FCC’s Standards Have Failed Rural America

There are countless stories like Hoffman’s all across rural Michigan. 

“I would estimate that we have probably 350,000 to 400,000 households in the rural parts of the state that don’t have access to broadband, as defined by the FCC,” Frederick, of Connect Michigan, said. 

Still, the sheer scope of the problem—in both Michigan and across the nation—is difficult to pin down the precision. The FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report, published in 2020, claims that only 18 million Americans lack access to broadband. But a study by Broadband Now pegged the number at 42 million, and the FCC’s own commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has called into question the accuracy of the agency’s figures.

That’s because under current FCC standards, broadband providers self-report data. If they tell the agency that one home within a census block has access to broadband services, then the entire census block is considered served. This self-reporting allows companies to paint themselves in the best picture possible, even if it’s not the reality. 

A company could also theoretically report that it delivers 25 Mbps download speed but actually deliver a slower speed, and the FCC wouldn’t know. And since the FCC doesn’t give money to communities that are considered served at its baseline, communities that might really need subsidies for funding could be ineligible if a provider’s self-reporting is faulty. 

Because of census block mapping, the entirety of Ogemaw County appears to have access to broadband when you look at the FCC’s broadband map. But as Jameson made clear, that is distinctly not the case.

“I know that certain places in West Branch have it, but I actually live about a half-mile off the regular road, so it’s not an option,” she said. 

Fewer than 45% of residents in Ogemaw County have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to one 2019 analysis. In Mackinac County, where Hoffman lives, the number is only slightly higher, at 48%

Why Is There a Digital Divide in the First Place?

There are two main reasons for the digital divide, experts say: access and affordability.

On the access front, it’s more expensive for providers to wire remote, rural areas where there’s more ground to cover and fewer customers than suburban and urban communities.

“It comes down to household density,” Frederick said. “The cost to expand in a rural area goes up exponentially the further apart those households get.”

Costs can vary even within rural communities, as Dave Waymire, spokesman for the Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association, made clear. 

“You have a rural community that has one house on a [one] mile road or you may have a rural community that has five houses on a road, or maybe even a subdivision that’s not served right now, so it can vary a lot,” he said. “Clearly, providing service to 25 houses could be cheaper on a per home basis then if they’re just one home in a two-mile stretch.”

This approach has left gaps in broadband coverage in rural America, leaving smaller, local companies and cooperatives to try and fill the void. But these companies have limited funds and have historically struggled to obtain federal funding, due to bureaucratic red tape and confusing, time-consuming application and reporting processes.

The other major impediment to high-speed broadband—and arguably the bigger one in Michigan—is the cost.

“The bigger issue, quite frankly, sometimes is (the) people who choose not to pick it up,” Waymire said. “Even after the construction site is built, you still have to be willing to pay for service and the service is not inexpensive.”

An estimated 865,000 households in Michigan are disconnected because they can’t afford monthly internet service, according to Whitmer’s office. Affordability isn’t only a rural issue, either; it affects more densely populated areas in the state. Only 56% of Michiganders have access to an affordable internet plan, according to a recent study from Broadband Now, which defined affordable as costing $60 or less per month for wired internet of at least 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. 

The culprit of these high prices varies, but in many cases, it’s a lack of competition, which often allows providers to charge higher prices

A ‘Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity’

Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II have made expanding broadband access a major focus while in office. 

Just last week, Gilchrist announced $15.3 million in new funding through the Connecting Michigan Communities grant program, which will support 20 projects across the state to bring service to 6,700 locations. 

The latest round of funding follows the initial round of $11.9 million awarded in October 2020, and another $1 million awarded this past April. Gov. Whitmer also established the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office in June, which aims to make high-speed internet more affordable and accessible.

The bulk of the money to expand broadband in Michigan, however, comes from the federal government. 

Providers in the state have used more than $400 million from the FCC and US Department of Agriculture to expand broadband access during Whitmer and Gilchrist’s time in office. And Michigan’s towns are seeing the impact; about $20 million was alloted for projects in Mackinac County, where Hoffman lives, and $6 million going to Ogemaw County, where Jameson lives.

Hoffman was excited when she learned about the funding, and is similarly eager about the possibility of a massive federal investment that could be coming down the pike. 

President Biden is working with both Republican and Democrat senators to tentatively carve out $65 billion to expand broadband and make it more affordable. The deal has been dubbed the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework.”

Tennant and Frederick say they are thrilled about the proposed federal investment, with Frederick calling it a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to really significantly address the digital divide.”

Next Steps: Making High-Speed Internet Affordable 

While that level of funding will certainly help expand access, it doesn’t directly address the affordability issue. The Emergency Broadband Benefit was passed as part of the American Rescue Plan and gave low-income households up to $50 a month to subsidize broadband, but it’s temporary. 

“Something has to be done to rein in and address the affordability issue in the long term,” Frederick said. “If we don’t, we’re just going to keep throwing money at that problem.”

Reaching Biden’s goal of universal, affordable broadband won’t be easy—but succeeding would be life-changing for Michiganders like Jameson and Hoffman. 

“I think of this as a necessary part of life, especially when I think about the kids and the students and all sorts of future opportunities,” Hoffman said. “I think it’s like electricity was back in the day.”

Jameson echoed that message, lamenting how her community had fallen behind, “It’s about time that we got into the 21st century.”