Rural residents' frustrating search for high-speed Internet access
From the June, 2017 issue
When Nikki Sunstrum and her husband purchased their home in Dexter Township in January 2014, she didn't ask whether it had high-speed Internet access. "It never really crossed our mind, living twenty minutes outside of Ann Arbor, that we wouldn't have something as simplistic as Internet accessibility," she says. But when she phoned local cable providers, she quickly discovered that none served her area. Sunstrum is director of social media at the University of Michigan, and she gets the irony that she is forced to rely on cellular data services to get a basic connection. With six children and thirteen active online devices, "without restraint, we could easily burn up thousands of dollars in Internet data bills on a monthly basis," she says. Trips to the library and regular planning for Wi-Fi access opportunities are essential for her children to complete their homework. "It's not a way to live," she says.
Like Sunstrum, many residents of rural Washtenaw County lack fast and reliable Internet connections. According to Connect Michigan, 16 to 20 percent of households in western Washtenaw County--roughly 6,000 to 8,000--do not have access to broadband, which the Federal Communications Commission defines as a download rate of 25 Mbps for "advanced" users. Nationally, 39 percent of rural Americans--23 million people--lack broadband access, according to a 2016 FCC report. High-speed Internet "is practically nonexistent in rural places," says Marty Newell at the Center for Rural Strategies.
Last year, the Michigan Broadband Cooperative collected comments from 120 western Washtenaw residents voicing their displeasure with costly satellite and phone connections. The companies respond that the obstacle is simple economics: "It's very expensive to deliver broadband," says David Waymire, spokesman for the Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association. Costs of more than $40,000 per mile, make it "really difficult to build a business case for delivering services in certain areas of the state," he says. In Washtenaw County, Charter Communications provides services to portions of Dexter, Lyndon, Northfield, Salem, and Webster townships.
Bill Morand, the company's Great Lakes regional communications director, says that "building our network into unserved portions of Washtenaw County is cost prohibitive."
A variety of grassroots initiatives are looking at innovative ways to deliver broadband to the county's rural areas. But it's a vexing issue with no easy answer.
Farmers are particularly affected; 58 percent of Michigan farmers rely on broadband for their farm management systems, while 20 percent rely on it for their irrigation, according to consumer advocacy group Connect Michigan. Pete Lemmer, chief legal counsel for GreenStone Farm Credit, says that rural broadband is critical to reducing expenses for farmers and lowering the cost of food. Lyn Uphaus, a fifth-generation farmer raising beef cattle and feed crops in Manchester, says that because most farm equipment auctions are online, "you have to have a good connection to participate in them."
Uphaus says that after dial-up and satellite services proved too slow and unreliable, she found her solution in Jack Westbrooks's RuralReach.com. Since 2003, Westbrooks has been building a network of fixed wireless Internet connections using access points on top of grain stacks and silos to link rural users to a fiber-optic connection in Dexter.
"We became very creative in connecting with farmers who allowed us to get access to high spots to put equipment," Westbrooks says. Because Uphaus provided a location for an access point, she now gets Internet access for free.
With twenty-two "towers" currently installed, Westbrooks has roughly 500 customers who pay anywhere from $49 a month for a 1.5 Mb connection to $99 a month for 6 Mb. But Westbrooks acknowledges that it's not ideal for homes surrounded by trees and hills where there's no easy path for the signal.
Parents of school-aged children are also desperate for reliable Internet service as more instruction migrates online. "This has been institutionalized as a tool for instruction," says Chelsea schools superintendent Julie Helber. Melanie Bell, Chelsea District Library's network administrator, says it's not unusual to see children doing their homework in the library. A survey in 2014 found that nine out of ten people without Internet access head to the library to go online. A year ago, the Chelsea library began lending fifteen Wi-Fi hot spots that allow households to share a cellular data connection. They are continually checked out.
Toni Keywell of Dexter Township has seven children aged eleven to twenty-five and spends five to ten hours a week at the Dexter library so her young ones can get Internet access. That's on top of paying $200 a month for satellite Internet service--an old plan the family has stuck with because they can bypass its data cap by going online between midnight and 5 a.m.
Desperate for a broadband solution, Keywell contacted Charter. She was told it would cost $19,000 just to run the line. Bill Morand of Charter couldn't confirm that but says when homes are located beyond a certain point "the cost of building to them can escalate with additional equipment needed to deliver a reliable signal."
Peg Tewksbury, a Dexter Township resident, says her family routinely burns through the data cap on their Verizon cellular hot spot. She's considering moving but wonders if she can sell her house without high-speed Internet.
Kari Newman, a trustee with the Ann Arbor Board of Realtors, says she's had several clients walk away from buying a house because there was no broadband access. Janet McAllister of Charles Reinhart, who sold Sunstrum her house, says it's not unusual for a purchaser to buy a house without realizing that it doesn't have high-speed Internet, since that information is not routinely provided. A study by the University of Colorado indicates that reliable high-speed Internet can add more than $5,400 to the value of the average home. An ultrafast fiber-optic connection added 7 percent to property values.
"The long-term solution is to get fiber into our communities," says Bell at the Chelsea library. With private companies saying they can't afford to wire rural areas, some communities are considering building their own systems.
"There is no external entity who will solve this problem for us. We need to do it ourselves," says Ben Fineman, a Lyndon Township resident and president of the Michigan Broadband Cooperative, a nonprofit that aspires to deliver gigabit service over fiber-optic cables. Western Washtenaw County is its first target, and four townships there have completed feasibility studies: Lyndon, Sharon, Dexter, and Webster.
Sharon and Lyndon, where most residents have only slow telephone-based services, are the farthest along in the process. Last year, Lyndon sent out a survey asking if residents would support a tax of 3.7 mills for broadband infrastructure. After 68 percent said yes, the township has scheduled an August vote on the issue.
Sharon Township supervisor Peter Psarouthakis says lack of broadband is his residents' number one complaint. A study by CCG consulting indicated that it would cost $4.6 million to run fiber to all Sharon Township homes. That would require a tax of 3.6 mills over twenty years, $23 a month for the average homeowner. That's just to run the fiber--households that choose to connect would pay an additional monthly service fee estimated at $35.
If there's sufficient public support, Sharon might place a proposal on the November ballot. But Psarouthakis says his community is divided: "No one is against having broadband access. It boils down to money."
That division could be seen at an April meeting at Sharon United Methodist Church. There was standing room only, the attendees a mix of young and old. Jan Eisen was one of them. In search of rural tranquility, he recently bought a house on 12.5 acres in the township, only to find out that it did not have high-speed Internet. "I was kind of shocked," he says. "You just think it will be there." A translator of technical documents, he is thinking of keeping his office in Plymouth until service is available at his new home.
Without broadband, one resident predicted, "someday we are all going to be selling our houses, and people won't move here." Another described being forced to stop working at home and take a job in Ann Arbor because of the poor Internet service. But others worried about the cost, and questioned whether it made sense to invest in a technology that could become outdated over the twenty years the tax would be collected.
Sharon Township trustee Bob Guysky says the tax could impose a huge burden on those living on fixed incomes, and trying to run a cable system without expertise is risky. A place where people aren't tethered to their electronics isn't so bad, he adds: "We have people who long for that nostalgic lifestyle. That's what attracted them to the rural location."
Marc Keezer, Lyndon Township's supervisor, says 76 percent of residents who responded to a survey said they want broadband and would pay for it. Not many people responded, however. "I'm staying impartial," he says. "I'm just doing what the majority of the people are asking us to do."
In Dexter and Webster townships, the idea of tax-funded broadband is trickier, since many residents already have access through commercial providers. In Dexter Township, 23 percent do not. "My goal is to find a way to serve those people," says supervisor Harley Rider, but it's unrealistic to assume that those who have high-speed Internet will fund a program to bring it to those who lack it. To address this, state rep Donna Lasinski proposed a bill in February that would authorize special assessment districts for communications infrastructure. Lasinski says only 41 percent of her constituents have broadband access, so "it is a priority issue for me. This is my community's greatest need." John Kingsley, the supervisor in Webster Township, where 1,000 out of 2,800 residents have no access to broadband, says serious conversations would begin if it passes.
But cable providers are pushing back. The House bill "really takes the wrong approach," says Waymire of the cable association. He says publicly funded systems "could easily fail in a high-risk rural area." Instead, the association argues, governments should make it easier for their members to build networks, for instance by eliminating the personal property tax on broadband assets and expediting permits to use public rights of way. Congressman Tim Walberg emails that as a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Rural Telecommunications Working Group, he is committed to supporting efforts to streamline federal permitting and siting rules and incentivizing investment in broadband.
New alternatives may be coming. Billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are each proposing satellite networks that they say will provide faster Internet connections at lower cost. But Ben Fineman cautions that as promising as those concepts sound, they'll take enormous resources to implement: Musk's company "SpaceX said it will need 4,425 satellites for this project," he points out, "which is about twice as many satellites as all the satellites that are in orbit for every application today."
Cell phone companies also are upgrading their offerings. Sprint is improving its high-speed mobile data throughout eastern Michigan, says Scott Santi, the company's vice president of network deployment. "We know where the usage is good and where it's not as robust as we would like," Santi says. "We design the network improvements to address that." Assuming "the cooperation and partnership of the community and its leaders" on rights-of-way and permitting, he says, the work will include Washtenaw County. The company aims to finish the upgrade within a year.
Verizon, meanwhile, is expanding the capabilities of its 4G LTE network. "The speed we're able to provide over wireless is so much greater than a year ago," says Steve Van Dinter, a spokesman for Verizon's Great Lakes market. "We can deploy more of this technology faster going wireless than running fiber to everyone's homes." Teresa Mask, a spokesperson for AT&T, says her company also will be offering faster wireless data to more people.
Susan Filipiak of Lima Township says phone providers have a long way to go. She finally gave up on her dial-up Internet service last year, because it took as long as twelve hours to access a video. She's in a cell phone dead zone, and satellite options are poor because of nearby trees. She goes to the Dexter library every day to get access, but is wary of using its public computers for banking or online shopping. The Internet "should be available to everybody," she says.
Like Ben Fineman, Dan Manning believes that fiber is the long-term solution. The key, he says, will be finding a way to reduce costs and get more providers to expand their networks.
Fineman believes momentum for government-funded broadband will build. "One community or another will move forward and when that happens, surrounding communities will start to see the tangible benefits that community is getting," he predicts. Marty Newell of the Center for Rural Strategies said the key is local choice, "the ability to do whatever makes the most sense, because there just is not a single alternative that works everywhere."
Nikki Sunstrum is hoping for a solution soon. Reliable Internet access, she says, is a requirement in society today. "I know our decision to choose the home we did would have most certainly been affected had we known what we know now."
[Originally published in June, 2017.]
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