Eric Frederick says Michigan is lacking in broadband internet access, particularly in rural areas. Photo by Nick Hagen

By Sheila O. Schimpf

Online is where almost everybody wants to be these days. But in Michigan, not everybody can get there.

Last year, more than 380,000 state households were not wired to have high-speed internet access, known as broadband.

“Absolutely we need more broadband,” said Eric Frederick, a vice president at Connected Nation and Connect Michigan, nonprofits that advocate for broadband expansion.

Those lacking high-speed access are “mostly in rural areas, outside of small towns,” he said.

The Legislature this year is expected to consider allowing townships to pay for broadband with special assessment districts and to exempt broadband equipment from some taxes. AARP Michigan supports both proposals.

Expanding broadband in a community helps older adults as well as the rest of the population, said Melissa Seifert, AARP Michigan associate state director for government affairs.

Besides providing access to information about job openings, the internet can also aid in socialization and education and serve as a resource for caregivers, she said.

“Our world has shifted from a paper world to one of high-speed internet,” she said.

In the Upper Peninsula, Northern Michigan University is spending $6.5 million from a state economic development agency, and $3.2 million of its own money, to help more people get online, said R. Gavin Leach, the university’s vice president for finance and administration. NMU will use subscriber fees to pay the state back.

The university’s students can get internet for free, while a household with no children, for example, can get broadband for $34.95 a month if someone participates in one university-sponsored learning activity a year.

NMU is working with Upper Peninsula Health Plan to develop health-related courses, such as managing diabetes, Leach said.

Farmers need to connect
Frederick said that while internet connection speeds “have increased dramatically in recent years in densely populated areas, the expansion into rural areas has not kept pace.”

Matt Kapp a government relations specialist with the Michigan Farm Bureau said farming is a business that needs the internet.

“If I’m a farmer and I want to know what the corn price is and I want to know if I should sell corn today, I need internet access to find out what the commodity prices are today,” Kapp said.

Farmers need internet to order parts. And their kids need internet to do homework, he said.
“The failure of public policy to address this critical need must be addressed,” the Farm Bureau, the state’s largest general farm organization, said in a statement.

In Sharon Township, in rural Washtenaw County, no one has broadband, said Supervisor Peter Psarouthakis.

“I have a business out of my home,” said Psarouthakis, a licensed professional investigator. “I need access to the internet, and I need it high speed. I find myself having to take my laptop and drive into a town that has it.’’

He buys lunch at a coffee shop and sets up his laptop. His high-school-age children have to stay late at school or get driven to a place that has internet access to download their homework.

Sharon Township will vote in May on whether residents should pay for the installation of fiber-optic cable, which allows for high-speed internet. Psarouthakis is in favor of the millage proposal. If the measure is approved, the average homeowner would pay about $23 a month.

“There’s a strong possibility it will pass,” he said.

Sheila O. Schimpf is a writer living in East Lansing, Mich.