Mason County residents may pay high prices for high-speed Internet services

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Capital News Service
LANSING — Although statewide high-speed Internet deployment might create a better quality of life in Michigan, the residents of Mason County and surrounding areas could be among those paying the highest price.
“Cable Internet access in the Ludington area would likely be more expensive due to the sparse population—based on the number of people using it,” said Rep. David Mead, R-Frankfort.
Broadband technology dramatically boosts ease of use by increasing the rate at which data may be sent or received via telecommunications networks. Anticipated applications include online voting capabilities, medical consultations and videoconferencing.
As part of his Michigan High-Speed Internet Plan, Gov. John Engler proposed that a 5-cents-per-foot tax be levied on telecommunications lines to fund statewide broadband deployment.
In sparsely populated areas, the provider’s investment would not be as profitable as in densely populated areas, because there is less potential for multiple customers per foot of line.
Lee Trucks of Jackpine Business Centers, a provider of high-speed wireless and dial-up Internet services to Manistee and Ludington, said the high cost of broadband services—not the lack of availability—limits the demand for it in his area.
“We have dial-up customers who are online for three hours out of the whole month so broadband isn’t worth it,” Trucks said. “They get on and send a few e-mail messages and that’s it.”
Trucks said that as a taxpayer, business person and a participant in the technology business, he is ambivalent about the governor’s tax-funded proposal for broadband deployment. He said it would be a large public investment in technology that might be outdated in two years.
“I’m not a big believer in pushing technology,” said Trucks, who has just six wireless Internet customers in Ludington. “The deployment of broadband is not that important to me, and that is not a minority opinion.”
Meanwhile, Lynne GeBott, customer care supervisor at Charter Communications, said about 200 people in the Ludington area are on a wait list for high-speed cable Internet service.
The Senate Technology and Energy Committee heard the last of the testimony on Engler’s original proposal on Wednesday. Committee Chair Ken Sikkema R-Grandville, said Engler’s proposal—as originally drafted—is unacceptable. A concern is that providers will pass the cost of the tax on to customers, and he agreed that smaller cities would suffer if that happened.
“I will not support legislation that will pass the increased costs on to the ratepayers,” Sikkema said. “Michigan citizens already pay too much for telephone service.”
The committee has not voted on Engler’s proposal, and Sen. Sikkema announced substitute proposals Thursday.
Sikkema’s proposals would prohibit the Michigan Broadband Development Authority from receiving right-of-way fee money or appropriations as additional capital and establish a tiered approach for the right-of-way fees collected by the authority to be distributed to municipalities.
Other highlights include possible utility property tax credits for broadband providers, elimination of end-user line charges on customer phone bills and an amendment of the antitrust act to eliminate the anti-competitive exemption for telecommunications companies.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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