Internet not getting faster in rural northern Michigan

Mar 2, 2015

The FCC has published a map that shows lack of broadband service in the U.S. by county. Blue areas do not have access under the new standard, 25 Mbps/3Mbps.

The federal government wants faster Internet connections nationwide and has raised the minimum speed for what it considers broadband. That is unlikely to help the thousands of people in northern Michigan who have something like dial-up service and have for years.

Since 2008, the federal government spent more than $100 million in Michigan to make broadband more widely available and faster. The stimulus dollars did improve connections for libraries, schools and government offices. But it is hasn’t made much difference for rural parts of northern Michigan without high speed service to homes and businesses.

Timothy Young lives on the northern edge of Benzie County, just outside out of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. He owns the business Food For Thought which promotes itself as nestled among the Sleeping Bear Dunes. It turns out that picturesque location is not the best if you want to be connected to the digital world.

He says it can take hours to upload a video to the web.

“You literally launch it when you go to bed at night and in the morning you hope it’s done, he says. “Sometimes it’s not.”

Now, this is better than the satellite Internet he had before. He says he begged his phone company for years to put in the line he is hooked up to.

Young also does aid work in Africa. He just got back from a trip and says he was better connected digitally there than here.

“Developing countries there, they’re just investing in it, heavily. They see it as the way to the future.”

Nothing new

Chuck Scott says this problem is a longstanding conundrum. Scott owns Gaslight Media in Petoskey. Scott wrote a white paper about the lack of broadband service in northern Michigan around eight years ago.

“I could go back and read that paper now and it reads just the same except some of the speeds are different,” he says.

Recently the FCC increased the speed needed for service to be considered broadband. Under the new definition, tens of thousands of people in northern Michigan don’t have access. According to the FCC, not one person in Lake County has access. About a third of the Kalkaska County does not.

Scott says pushing for higher speeds nationwide will probably just spur on development of faster Internet in places where people already have broadband.

“It’s like you’re just not paying attention to the people who essentially have nothing,” he says.

Local solutions

There are pockets of progress here and there. Less than 1,000 people live in Mikado Township in Alcona County and about a third of them now have broadband available, thanks to the help of federal stimulus dollars.

Township supervisor Jesus Yruegas wants everyone to have it, he says there are plenty of older residents in his Mikado who would benefit.

“Instead of driving 45 miles to the hospital to see a doctor, they can probably do it through e-medicine through the internet,” he says.

But Yruegas says broadband service will not expand where he lives without more government aid and he doesn’t see any coming to rural Michigan soon.

“When it’s election time, you hear about broadband,” he says. “When the election is over you don’t hear it again. You don’t see the funding. It disappoints me.”

So it might be up to local governments to move the needle on this issue. Some townships and counties are putting together business plans in order to convince Internet providers there is a market in their area.

Tom Stephenson, at Connect Michigan, says some are even putting up towers to lure companies that offer wireless broadband. Stephenson says communities can get creative.

“Somebody might have an old radio tower used by the oil companies or something like that,” he says. “And they’ll use that.”

Creative thinking aside, there are some natural barriers to companies that want to offer wireless broadband in northern Michigan. The trees are the main problem. They cause interference.

A couple years ago a company called miSpot opened up and announced plans to offer wireless broadband service across the region starting in Manistee County. The company was named a Broadband Access Hero by the state in 2013. A year later, it was out of business.