A common series of questions that Connected Nation communications director Jessica Denson often heard from journalists before COVID-19 showed up in the U.S. went along these lines: “Why is broadband availability important? Isn’t it somewhat of a luxury to have broadband?‘

As millions of people have begun working, attending school, shopping and communicating with their health care providers online following the statewide lockdown in the spring, Denson said it’s become all too apparent that having access to high-speed internet isn’t merely a luxury — it’s a necessity of life in the 21st Century.

“If there’s a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, it’s that there will be shift in the understanding of why broadband access is important,‘ Denson said. “There are so many advantages to having it.‘

Connected Nation is a non-profit group that works with governments and other entities to expand broadband availability and affordability to people throughout the country.

Denson likens the mission of expanding broadband to the “electrification‘ process that the U.S. underwent in the 19th Century.

“It’s still a big problem in our country,‘ Denson said regarding the lack of high-speed internet in some places. “There’s been a big push to connect rural areas.‘

In September, Connected Nation published an interactive map that showed what broadband is available to residents of Michigan based on the speeds advertised by internet service providers.

“Getting a better picture of who has coverage and who doesn’t is a critical first step to closing the Digital Divide in Michigan,‘ said Tremaine Phillips, a commissioner at the Michigan Public Service Commission. “It is important to identify where there are unserved or underserved households, businesses, and communities in our state so that internet providers in partnership with community leaders are empowered to commit resources and make investments where additional broadband access is needed most. Having complete and reliable data is key to making that possible.‘

What the map showed is that this part of Northern Michigan is severely lacking in broadband speeds exceeding 10 megabytes a second download and one megabyte upload — which is generally considered the bare minimum speed required for people to access the online resources they need in today’s world, said Eric Frederick, vice president of Connect Michigan.

When comparing the area’s broadband availability to what the Federal Communications Commission considers an adequate speed — 25 megabytes download and three megabytes upload — it’s clear that this area is woefully underserved.

“It’s a 25-megabyte desert,‘ Frederick said about this part of Michigan.

Wexford County has the best 25-megabyte coverage in the region — 67.89% of the population, which still puts it among the bottom quarter of counties in Michigan — while Missaukee, Osceola and Lake counties only have 37.72%, 31.19% and 42.45%, respectively. With the exception of Luce County in the Upper Peninsula, no other counties in Michigan have worse 25-megabyte coverage than Missaukee, Osceola and Lake.

Predictably, coverage is even spottier once you move up into faster download speeds of 100 megabytes and 1 gigabyte a second.

That isn’t to say there are no areas in Wexford, Missaukee, Osceola and Lake counties that have high speed internet: speeds up to 100 megabytes download and 10 megabytes upload are available in select areas in all four counties.

In Wexford County, zones of high speed coverage cluster around Cadillac, Mesick, Manton and Buckley, along with a few other scattered locations. In Missaukee County, Lake City and areas immediately west, north and northwest of the city have 100 megabyte coverage, in addition to a portion of McBain and sections of Cadillac Road, LaChance Road and Lucas Road. In Osceola County, 100 megabyte access can be found in the same areas where 25 megabyte access can be found — mainly areas around Evart, Reed City, Hersey and LeRoy. Virtually no areas in Lake County have high speed access other than Luther, a small section around Wolf Lake, and roads branching off U.S. 10 on the east side of the county.

Conversely, there are large sections in three of the four counties where not even 10 megabyte opportunities exist, notably areas northeast of Lake City in Missaukee County, such as Moorestown; spotty regions in central Wexford County near Harrietta; and large swaths of central Lake County. Osceola County’s 10-megabyte coverage is the best in the area, at 99.2%; only 74 households in the county are unserved.

While the vast majority of Michigan is covered by mobile wireless providers, Frederick said this fact is a bit misleading because these companies aren’t required to report their speeds.

Frederick said families that have struggled the most with lack of broadband access in recent months are those with children who are doing a lot more of their school work online.

He said while overall data use doesn’t seem to have increased much across the country since COVID-19 arrived, companies report that the areas where people are accessing data has changed from schools and businesses to residential neighborhoods. This shift has put a burden on existing broadband infrastructure and resulted in slower service at certain parts of the day, when everyone is online.

Lake City Area Schools is in one of the most underserved areas in the region, with many students without access to even 10 megabytes a second when they’re at home.

School superintendent Kim Blaszak estimates they’re on track to spending around $1 million getting the district ready for the new year in the midst of the pandemic. She said a significant portion of that cost was purchasing new technology, staff and data hotspots to administer the virtual learning program, which is how about 35% of the student body is attending class.

“We’re stretched pretty thin financially,‘ Blaszak said. “Educating in this way is totally different. We’re doing everything we can to be as supportive to parents and students as we can. We’re also trying to teach students who are still attending in person how to function online if they have to go remote again (in the event of another shutdown).‘

Even in areas where there are high-speed options, Frederick said those that are available can be cost-prohibitive, especially in rural areas where there isn’t as much competition between providers and an incentive to lower cost.

“You’re stuck with whatever is offered to you,‘ Frederick said. “Second to availability, affordability is the biggest struggle for people.‘

One of the reasons broadband prices remain prohibitively high for many people in rural areas is that there isn’t enough of a population base to attract internet service providers to the region, Frederick said.

Some municipalities and other public entities in Michigan have partnered with internet service providers to build broadband infrastructure, which is an approach that Frederick believes will occur more frequently in coming years.

Additionally, the Federal Communications Commission has a program that awards significant annual subsidies to companies willing to set up in underserved areas. Companies interested in taking part in this program must first bid on the area they wish to provide access to.

In the upcoming Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction, major parts of Wexford, Missaukee Lake counties have been identified as lacking 25-megabyte opportunities (see map above). The northeast portion of Missaukee County, in particular, has the largest government subsidy attached to it (between $500,000 and $1 million) for whatever company wins the bid.

While Frederick said being included in the auction doesn’t automatically mean that an area will soon have better broadband access, he believes this area has a very good chance based on the number of people that currently aren’t being served.

To check out Connected Nation’s new interactive broadband map, go to https://connectednation.org/michigan/mapping-analysis/.

Cadillac News