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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

Connectivity: UP’s 21st Century Mackinac Bridge
—A Digital Gulf Remains

December 8, 2017 

Why is it that I can get better Internet and cell phone connecting access in rural China than I can in some spots in rural Michigan; especially the UP? This thought hit me as I blogged my trip through rural Yunnan Province recently and reflected on my prior train trip from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet and wandering around Urumqi, China where I was as isolated from civilization as a person can be.

Sections of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula currently have no or spotty access to broadband internet and cell coverage. This is simply unacceptable and negatively impacts the UP economy.  Lack of high speed internet and cell coverage are an anchor on parts of our state that should be a natural draw for their pristine environments. Access to broadband Internet is increasingly necessary to succeed in today’s world. Connecting the UP could make it a global economic magnet. 

Imagine the Upper Peninsula as one big “hot-spot!”

Clearly there is a “digital divide” between rural and urban areas when it comes to broadband access. There should be just as clear a plan to address it.  While Michigan used to be at the forefront of Internet access and use compared to the US average, Internet use has stagnated since 2009, making Michigan “average” in 2016 according to a report by IPPSR  Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. 


Bold Action

We need the equivalent of 21st Century Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which provided federal loans, or better still significant grants for the installation of electrical distribution systems to serve isolated rural areas of the United States. The funding was channeled through cooperative electric power companies, most of which still exist today. Given the rural nature and spotty population of rural Michigan and American there is little free market rationale for private investors to lay the infrastructure-necessary to power parts of our-state to tap the 21st century information and knowledge economy where ideas and jobs can and do more around the globe instantaneously. 

The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 was undertaken to provide farms and rural areas with inexpensive electric lighting and power. This Act needs a 21st century update to fast track cell and web access.  The Public Service Commission could help jump start better 21st connectivity for the UP if there is the political will to do so. 

In a 2009 report: Bringing Broadband to Rural America: Report on Rural Broadband Strategy it states:

“For many Americans, a world without broadband is unimaginable.  For them, broadband Internet access has transformed the way they live their lives.  But we have not succeeded in bringing broadband to everyone.  For years, large parts of rural America have languished on the sidelines of the digital revolution.  Home to the homesteaders, pioneers, and the rich and diverse Native American cultures that contribute so much to our national identity, rural America has for most of our history been deemed too remote, too sparsely populated, or too inaccessible to be fully connected with our nation’s infrastructures.”


Sadly, this state of non-access remains today in far too many places in rural Michigan and throughout America.

A Spark and a Start

Governor Snyder realizes our state is in a state of disrepair when it comes to infrastructure of all types and commissioned the 21st Century Infrastructure Commission. The mission of the Commissions work is to prepare Michigan to lead the nation in creating 21st century infrastructure systems that will include, at a minimum, innovative technology, sustainable funding solutions, sound economic principles, and a collaborative and integrated asset management and investment approach that will enhance Michiganders’ quality of life and build strong communities for the future.

Connect Michigan, (http://m.connectmi.org/) in partnership with the Michigan Public Service Commission (www.michigan.gov/mpsc/), is working to ensure that all can experience the benefits of broadband. Technology, especially widespread access, use and adoption of broadband, improves all areas of life. 


Last year Northern Michigan University received a $6.5 million state grant by the Michigan Strategic Fund Board to expand its Educational Access Network. The funds were matched by $3.2 million from Northern Michigan University to equip 64 cities and townships in the Upper Peninsula over a two-year period.

These creative funding mechanisms are a good start to connect the UP to the 21st century knowledge economy— more needs to be done.

As I pointed out in these pages (Superior Ideas; http://domemagazine.com/tomwatkins/tw072817). “The U.P. continues to lose people and jobs and towns are disappearing.”  Last year, the population dropped in 13 of the U.P.’s 15 counties, continuing a slide that began in 2000, according to Census Bureau estimates released in March. The U.P.’s population has fallen 4.4 percent from 2000 through the current 2016 estimate of 303,181 (http://www.detroitnews.com/story/news/local/michigan/2017/05/17/population/101774148/).

Technology connectivity could help reserve this trend.  

FCC Changes Rules

To add insult to injury, the FCC is planning to roll back the “Lifeline” program. The Lifeline program provides discounts on phone services for qualifying low-income households: Those with an income at or below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or who qualify for assistance programs, such as Medicaid and SNAP. In 2016, the program was expanded to include broadband services, a move that signaled the importance of getting all Americans online in a digitally connected world.

Rollback of the FCC’s Lifeline program will hurt households that need broadband the most.  The FCC changes are expect to especially impact those on Tribal Lands, who can no longer get enhanced lifeline support of an extra $25 every month through resellers.  The Lifeline program is often derided as “Obamaphone” program. Ironically it was created under President Reagan in 1985 to provide discounts on phone services for qualifying low-income households.

Like most government programs the Lifeline may need tweaks and reform, yet the proposed changes will only make it harder for low-income Americans to enjoy the benefits of broadband in their homes. This change will hit areas with people on fixed and low income hard— think of the UP.  At a time when far too many people are digitally disconnected and digital skills are more important than ever, these “reforms” push the national economy in the wrong direction. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/11/27/rollback-of-the-fccs-lifeline-program-can-hurt-households-that-need-broadband-the-most/

Connectivity: Bridge to the Future

As the 2018 campaign season heats up candidates for local, state and federal office should be asked to commit to fight for and succeed in bringing rural Michigan communities into sync with competitor communities be they domestic or foreign. Given a  level playing field the UP can compete with anyone.

It has been documented that having access to affordable connectivity increases income, lowers unemployment and creates jobs. 


If you want the votes of the fiercely independent Yoopers you ought to commit to ending the connectivity disparity.  Just as the construction of the Mackinac Bridge had a significant and profound impact on economic development and quality of life for Michigan; especially the UP, accelerating Broadband and cell investment throughout the UP will provide new life and opportunities to our rural communities.  Making the UP the tip of the spear when it comes to connectivity would be the 21st century Mackinac Bridge and something Yoop about.

Tom Watkins has been a longtime advocate for providing equal, quality access to technology for schools and our community. Read his 2005 internationally recognized report: The New Education (R)evolution: e-learning reforms for Michigan
He can be emailed at: tdwatkins88@gmail.com, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


December 7, 2017 · Filed under Tom Watkins



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