Michigan Has a Broadband Office to Get Wi-Fi, But It’s Sitting Empty

By Isaac Constans

February 18, 2022

Michigan has the opportunity to get internet access to isolated parts of the state. But the project has been on the back burner. Libraries are stepping in to fill the gap. 

Need to Know

  • A Michigan office designed to get broadband to rural areas lacks funding and staffing.
  • Rural libraries have been renting out Wi-Fi hotspots, just like you would rent a book.
  • The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has given Michigan a record amount of funding to transform its services.

OTSEGO COUNTY, Mich.—Where books used to fly off the shelves, the Otsego County Library has a new hottest ticket: Wi-Fi hotspots.

“There’s almost always a waiting list for those,” said Chris Knight, the technology coordinator for the library.

Just like to check out a book, walking out with Wi-Fi is as simple as flashing a library card and getting a return slip.

These high-demand hotspots make it possible for people to browse the internet and watch shows at home, which is actually quite the commodity for large swaths of Michigan. Otsego County is one of the many places that many broadband companies haven’t gotten to—at least not outside of the Gaylord city limits.

A solid amount of traffic through library doors is people looking to use the internet and computer labs, Knight said. For people that want to take online classes, file taxes, or simply scroll the web, they have to plan their trips out to head to the small town of 3,000 in a predominantly rural area.

For those lucky enough to secure a hotspot, it’s a sort of an at-home vacation: In rural areas with cell phone reception, people can turn that signal into internet access. 

When it comes time to return the hotspots, however, Michigan families return to a reality where it’s harder to do school work, get jobs, or stay up to date with the news. One in every eight Michiganders does not have any sort of internet access at home, and one more relies on their cell phone data plan as a source of internet access, a study found.

Even at Knight’s home, Wi-Fi has been a commodity. Up until one year prior, his family was relying on a hotspot, despite living less than a mile outside of town. And between a wife working from home and kids learning from home, they had to install a set of rules around Wi-Fi rationing their network to make it work.

“Having a wife that works from home and being quarantined at times, especially having the kids at home with schoolwork to do during the pandemic, it was kind of a challenge to not go over data,” said Knight, who’s lived in the area since the 1980s.

The past year, however, the Knight household moved to a more permanent solution.

Rollout Underway—Pardon the Delay

Progress is underway. In the past year, Michiganders, including the Knights, have seen projects completed in their homes.

The wireless company installed fiber-optic cables for accessing the internet at Knight’s house, the most up-to-date, fastest contraption for delivering internet to homes.

He’s seen the local rural internet co-op install the same at homes all around him.

But it’s a big project.

“It’s just such an immense challenge that it’s taking so long,” Knight said, adding that the company estimates it will be almost a decade before it’s able to roll out fiber to everyone’s home.

A 2020 survey from the Communications Workers of America found that just .1% of rural homes served by AT&T in Michigan have fiber access. Though service has expanded since 2020, Knight’s family is still one of the early adopters.

Even in populous areas, such as Saginaw, affluent neighborhoods have received the flashiest, fastest internet upgrades, while poorer areas have been stuck in an online rut, wrote Martin Szeliga, vice president of the Local 4108 Communication Workers of America union, in a Lansing State Journal column. That’s because traditionally telecommunications companies have received funds and chosen where it makes the most sense to distribute service—and they pick profit over service area every time.

“I’m very proud of my work, but myself and people in communities across Michigan haven’t had a say about where broadband is deployed,” Szeliga wrote.

Michigan currently has an office dedicated to disseminating high-speed internet options to everyone, especially those in underserved areas. The problem is that the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created last June, lacks the staff and funding needed to operate—sitting as hollow compared to how it was envisioned. 

“Without any funding and without the eight full-time employees, this is just a shell of an entity,” said Joanne Galloway, executive director, Center for Change Northern Michigan Advocacy. 

Now, it’s up to the legislature. Nonpartisan leaders from community organizations around the state rallied together last week during a press call to urge the legislature to fund the office as soon as possible, since funding for the office was requested last year. They complimented Whitmer for her “foresight” to establish the office as well as create the Office of Rural Development, which will assist in the rollout of broadband.

Both parties have identified internet access as an issue, with many broadband issues impacting predominantly Republican districts in rural areas. Yet, the Republican-controlled state legislature has not yet set aside funding to date.

Last week, during a House appropriations subcommittee, legislators received an introductory hearing about what’s needed to bring Wi-Fi to disconnected parts of the state. Legislators have reservations, but there is momentum, Galloway said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for education,” Galloway said.

States are in line to receive a cascade of funding for broadband projects that previously might have not made the cut of budget negotiations. These funds come by way of the new federal infrastructure act, which gives Michigan and states across the country aid in rebuilding roads, bridges, and upgrading their broadband. 

“It is currently raining money for broadband development,” Galloway said. “Now is the time to play our cards right. Every Michigander deserves access to affordable, reliable, secure internet.”

To turn these dollars into real improvements, the act requires that states have a very detailed plan for how they plan to roll out these projects and a single point of contact—which for Michigan would be the infrastructure office. For states, this is a new adventure, because federal grants to expand broadband access have previously given internet carriers the discretion for where to go. 

Not this time.

Advocates worry that with so many states starting transformational projects, there will be a nationwide shortage of the labor, expertise, and equipment needed to complete broadband projects.

Michigan’s neighbors have already put these offices in place and hired staff to lift projects off the ground. The longer it takes Michigan to hire full-time staff, the longer it will be until people in rural communities receive broadband.

“The timing is so critical,” Galloway said. “All 50 states are receiving lots of funds for broadband development.”

The Wrong Side of the Digital Divide

In the meantime, communities on the wrong side of the digital divide continue to suffer. 

The eastern Upper Peninsula, for example, has seen a lot of interest from Michiganders looking to relocate full-time to the area to take advantage of telework. But the lack of Wi-Fi has been a turnoff that has capped the growth potential of the region, Gary Wellnitz, the Northern Michigan field representative for the Michigan branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said.

“They need to be able to work from home or in their business that they want to start there,” Wellnitz said. “This has just been a huge impediment to that economic development.”

The same goes for schools, Wellnitz said about his area of expertise. Even when kids are full-time in person at school, those who don’t have internet at home can fall behind.

From his own experience, Knight, the librarian, said kids—his own included—know their way around a computer; it’s just about Wi-Fi access. 

When he has to go help out, usually, it’s folks from older generations that need help. As society continues to push folks online—with applications, appointments, and communication all found online—many in rural, northern Michigan are still just catching up to the curve.

Every day, the Otsego County Library has residents come in with a technology request. Every day, one will ask how to set up a new email account. The internet frontier is something that they’re bracing for, as much of the world left them behind.

“That’s pretty much something we deal with every day is to help people out,” Knight said.


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