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Residents in Michigan's rural areas face challenges with remote learning and work due to poor broadband access

Lack of infrastructure one of biggest hurdles in rural 'digital divide'
State officials announce a third round of grants to improve internet service in under-served areas
Posted at 8:50 AM, Apr 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-25 08:50:04-04

Thousands of rural Michigan residents don't have access to high-speed internet which has been a challenge as they try to work and continue their education remotely during the pandemic

House Bill 4210 would have expanded broadband access in rural areas and made the equipment used for this service tax exempt.

Last week, the Governor rejected the bill partially because the broadband speeds it called for aren’t high enough.

The bill sets the connection speed at 25 megabits per second, but Whitmer said in a letter to the State House explains that speed just doesn’t fit the needs of modern living.

Connected Nation is an advocacy group working to make sure all Americans have access to current internet technology.

Spokesperson, Jessica Denson says she thinks the Governor is right

“We would agree with the Governor that not only should we address this digital divide but in a way that’s future proof. We’re investing intelligently with good data. That we’re providing internet speeds that really can help families. Not just here’s a patchwork, that’s good enough for you.”

According to Connected Nation, 17% of rural communities don’t have access to broadband that is fast enough.

17% of rural communities don’t have access to broadband that is fast enough

It's an issue that impacts 16 million school-age children around the country.

Erin Schmandt of the Caro Library system in Michigan's thumb says the technology shortfall has been very pronounced during the pandemic and libraries have had to fill in the gap.

Erin Schmandt of the Caro Library system

“There was a teacher sitting in our parking lot teaching all of their classes because where they were at home either they didn’t have internet because there are places in our area where you can’t get internet or it wasn’t strong enough to do video calls," said Schmandt.

Officials with Connected Nation say 25megabits per second is the bare minimum to be considered “high speed” but those connection speeds don’t go far in most homes.

“Highspeed internet is defined as 25 download mbps and 3 upload mbps and that’s defined by the FCC. Basically, what that means is that if I’m here at my home teleworking and my husband is teleworking, we should be okay. But if you add another person in we might start to see some slowdowns," said Denson.

One of the biggest hurdles these rural communities face is that the infrastructure to boost or improve speeds isn’t in place.

But State Representative Phil Green R- Tuscola and Huron counties, says for his constituents the bare minimum is better than nothing.

State Representative Phil Green on Internet Speed

“For someone to say look there’s better speeds in the city. We need the highest speeds possible; I don't think that would be the consensus of those who live in the country," said Green.

Schmandt is on the front lines of this issue.

Currently, the library not only makes its wifi available from the parking lot, but it also loans out wifi hotspots that many people in the community depend on for work and school.

Schmandt says something needs to be done but wants it to be a permanent fix and not a temporary solution.

“I honestly can see both sides. If we’re going to spend the money let's make it good and built for the future. But at the same time, right now we have nothing," said Schmandt.

The Governor’s office says in an email that during the pandemic the state has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to help schools all over the state bridge the digital divide.

Rep. Green says he is disappointed by the veto but he plans to work with his colleagues in the Senate are working on a similar bill so that it's more likely to be approved if it hits the governor’s desk.

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