Michigan rural areas search for high-speed internet

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By ZARIA PHILLIPS
Capital News Service

LANSING– Frustrated by a lack of access to high-speed internet, some rural communities in western Michigan and the Upper Peninsula are inventing their own solutions.

It will be years before solid high-speed internet cables can be run through the U.P., according to the region’s lawmakers.

That causes problems now.

Northern Michigan University in Marquette faced declining enrollment because students couldn’t do homework or take online classes, said state Rep. Sara Cambensy, D-Marquette. So the university put hotspots on the cell towers all over the U.P. and enrollment recovered.

Before that move, student were using up their cell phone data plans on course work, said Eric Smith, the director of broadcast and AV services at Northern Michigan University. The new university system has no limits on service to students.

The university’s Educational Access Network (EAN) offers its students and high school affiliates affordable access to internet services across much of the U.P., from Bad River to Brimley.

“We offer our services to the unserved and underserved,” Smith said. “And some areas that already have internet providers just need affordability. One family sent a note saying that they were so appreciative because they no longer needed to drive their son to McDonald’s to do his homework anymore.”

The service is included in the tuition for associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. The university’s goal is to offer services to the entire U.P.

The university “has really taken the lead saying ‘yes, we know it’ll take years before we can run the cables for high-speed internet, let’s try this route,’” Cambensy said.

The network extends to the underserved rural online works of the eastern U.P.,  said Jason Kronemeyer, the director of technology at the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District in Sault Ste. Marie.

But while it’s good to have the access, residents are in need of something much faster, he said.

“Most people nowadays work at least two days a week remotely,” Kronemeyer said. “So it’s not just important to get us internet connection, but connections that are just as reliable as our old telephone lines.”

The region now has telephone-pole-like communication towers, approved by the Federal Communications Commission. They offer antiquated internet service using copper lines instead of the widely used fiberglass cables that offer higher speeds and greater distance of service, Kronemeyer said. “The internet service offered in Sault Ste. Marie extends only about three or four miles outside of the area.”

In the rural western side of the Lower Peninsula, Gateway 2 Success Academy, based in Ludington,  offers virtual schooling throughout the region. It partners with the cellular service Cricket Wireless to make internet available to its students, also through hotspots.

“We have a large population of students in rural areas that don’t have wifi or connectivity,” said Phil Quinlan, a teacher and virtual learning officer for Gateway 2 Success. That includes students in Lake, Oceana, and Mason counties.

“We have a promise that we’ll provide free wifi, plus laptops and courses that our teachers provide, and Cricket Wireless helps us provide that where a lot of other companies  have declined because we’re lower income.”

Gateway 2 Success also offers low-cost internet access to parents and to students who aren’t directly taking courses with the school but wish to continue online projects they began at the academy.  

Homeschooled students can also pay an affordable price for a wifi connection and laptops through the academy, Quinlan said.

“There have been times I’ve driven out 40 miles to deliver a hotspot to a student struggling with their internet connection, maybe because of financial issues or the connection is just not good,” Quinlan said.

How soon rural areas can get improved internet is uncertain. And some providers say that the networks established by educational institutions could slow how fast that happens.

Low populations and average incomes of these areas scare off internet investors, said Steven Mason, the general manager of Lighthouse.net, an internet provider based in Sault Ste. Marie. 

“Internet providers like EAN have established their services in areas that already have some form of service, and instead of partnering with the services already there, they create unnecessary competition and overbuilding in the more densely populated areas,” he said.

“It’s important to have more upgraded internet in these areas but it’s also important that there is more internet service across wider areas. Services like AT&T don’t think they’ll get their investments back if they offer their services here, so they don’t.”