Residents near Reed City are so desperate for internet access that the town library has to rotate dozens of patrons per day on and off its 13 computers.
“People also sit in our parking lot at all hours trying to use our Wi-Fi,” said library director Tom Burnosky. “Our system is maxed out.”
Reed City is in one of the state’s most underserved areas for household high-speed broadband access, according to an August report unveiled by Gov. Rick Snyder (R).
Boosting internet access in such communities is among the goals of AARP Michigan’s advocacy efforts for the final months of 2018, after which the state will have a new governor and a large cohort of new lawmakers.
This so-called lame-duck period is traditionally a last opportunity to get pending legislation through, including a bill that would create special tax assessments for internet infrastructure when commercial providers decline to expand.
“We’re at the end of a two-year cycle,” said Melissa Seifert, AARP Michigan associate state director for advocacy. “If bills are not passed by December 31, they die and the process has to start all over again.”
An estimated 368,000 rural households in the state lack broadband access, and another 2 million homes have limited access through a single provider. The lag in service can erode family connections, limit health care access and curb opportunities for entrepreneurship, job searching and telecommuting, Seifert said.
“Telemedicine is huge and growing exponentially in importance,” agreed Eric Frederick, executive director of the advocacy group Connect Michigan.
When the internet began, it was sold in areas with enough household density that demand would repay cable companies for the cost of installing a network. By contrast, public utilities are required to serve all state residents, no matter how remote they are.
“There are huge swaths of Michigan not served,” said Frederick. “There’s nothing that compels providers to build out.”
Better connections, better health
AARP Michigan also supports joining the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which would allow Michigan doctors to practice in multiple states, thus boosting telehealth and letting snowbirds keep the same health care provider year-round.
Already, 24 states plus Washington, D.C., and Guam are part of the compact.
People over 50 are quickly adopting telehealth services, said Joe Brennan, senior director of the MedNow telemedicine unit of Grand Rapids–based Spectrum Health.
Given adequate internet connections, he said, physicians can inspect sore throats and other common ailments via the patient’s smartphone or listen to lungs through the microphone on a home laptop. With wearable health-monitoring products proliferating, he said, high-speed internet can help people with chronic health conditions live independently and age in place.
Telemedicine also gives patients the option of clinic-to-clinic specialty consultations from hundreds of miles away.
“Instead of a five-hour round-trip to see a specialist, they can drive 15 or 30 minutes to a regional hospital,” said Brennan.
“We calculated that we have saved patients in Michigan more than 1 million miles of driving in just our first four years.”
Melissa Preddy is a writer living in Plymouth, Michigan.