Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder announced a plan on Wednesday to provide broadband internet access throughout the state, with the creation of a consortium of policy advisers and a roadmap outlining steps to connect rural areas and boost broadband adoption.
The main goals of the project are to make high-speed internet available to the 381,000 Michigan households that currently lack broadband access, and to encourage more families and businesses across the state to sign up for coverage. Michigan ranks 34th among states in terms of households that enjoy internet connections of 25 megabits per second — the downstream threshold the Federal Communications Commission defines as true “broadband” — with just 65 percent of people who live in areas where high-speed internet is available actually subscribing to it.
“There are many regions of Michigan where internet is inaccessible or ineffective, and this plan works to make broadband internet available to Michigan residents in every corner of the state,” Snyder said in a press release.
Improving the broadband adoption rate will be the task of the new Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks, a 13-member body Snyder created with an executive order this week. The group, known as MCAN, will include seven members appointed by Snyder and six statewide officials, including the state’s chief information officer, Dave DeVries. MCAN will be responsible for executing a roadmap that aims to bring true broadband access to all Michiganders by 2022.
“It’s a pretty steep hill to climb to get there, but in the [roadmap] we identified a number of action items that can be done within a 12-month timeline,” said Eric Frederick, the executive director of Connect Michigan, a nonprofit that promotes greater broadband access and consulted on the formation of Snyder’s plan. “By getting those moving, we get the rest of the broadband infrastructure going in the rest of the state.”
Among the short-term goals the roadmap lays out is lowering the cost of broadband access, which is often cited as the greatest barrier to coverage in low-income communities. In Michigan, 37 percent of households earning less than $35,000 a year have no internet service at all, the roadmap states.
The document calls for educating residents of those communities on the fact that most internet service providers offer deeply discounted service for qualifying low-income households. Comcast, for instance, offers an “Internet Essentials” package that provides basic high-speed access for $9.95 per month — well below a typical rate of $40 per month or higher — to recipients of housing assistance or families with at least one child enrolled in the National School Lunch Program. The FCC’s “Lifeline” program also offers discounts on internet access to beneficiaries of Medicaid or nutrition-assistance programs.
But, the roadmap explains, there are far more people eligible for those discounts than those who enroll in them. Just 411,00 Michigan households out of a possible 1.24 million that qualify got the Lifeline benefit in 2017, and Comcast’s counted just 50,000 Internet Essentials customers in the state.
Erickson attributed those numbers to a lack of public awareness, and said his group and MCAN plan to work with the ISPs to advertise the discount-internet packages, particularly through the state agencies that distribute healthcare- and food-assistance benefit programs. “Working with organizations that serve vulnerable populations, we can centralize the eligibility process to make it easier,” he said.
Filling far-flung fissures
The state’s other main focus in expanding broadband will be building out the infrastructure needed to connect those 381,000 households that are currently cut off. A crucial part of the work in extending broadband access is simply mapping the areas that currently lack connections. Erickson said his team analyzed broadband access rates against Michigan’s school districts, and found that the districts with the least amounts of access were on the outskirts of the suburbs of Lansing, the state capital.
“We find the places that are most unserved are small towns on the fringes of suburbs, where the population density falls off,” he said.
But figuring out which places need broadband is just the first step. Hooking up unserved communities will require a massive and expensive physical investment of new fiber. The roadmap calls on the state to create incentives to install fiber in rural and exurban parts of the state, though Erickson said the cost of building out broadband infrastructure throughout Michigan — including far-flung places like the Upper Peninsula, where Snyder announced the plan — will likely top $1 billion.
Snyder, a Republican, is term-limited and will leave office in January, a fact Erickson said entered into the development of the statewide broadband plan. “We recognized when we started putting the report together that it’s going to cross administrations,” he said. “We’re hoping the next governor can pick up and run with it because it’s designed for a long-term scope.”
The Democratic nominee, former State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, has proposed expanding broadband access by laying down new fiber as part of extensive road reconstruction projects she envisions. Her Republican opponent, Attorney General Bill Schuette, has not made any public statements as a candidate addressing broadband.
Either way, it will be an expensive initiative. Erickson said Michigan could get as much as $363 million in broadband subsidies through the FCC’s Connect America Fund , which is spending $2 billion over the next decade to provide internet access in rural areas. Snyder has proposed $20 million in state grants for broadband projects. But a lot will be riding on the privately owned ISPs to finally invest in the least connected areas.
“We’re talking about rural areas,” he said. “It didn’t make good business sense to build broadband there. If it did, they would’ve done it already.”