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Recent News // Residents describe slow internet, limited options, high bills

Monday, August 22, 2016
  • BY CAROL THOMPSON, Record-Eagle | 
  • Read the full article

TRAVERSE CITY — Northern Michigan's rural residents live away from the bustling traffic and development of towns and major highways that connect them.

But the benefits of life in a home tucked behind trees, a long driveway's distance from a gravel road, isn't without need for modern connection. Rural internet and cell coverage are sparse, expensive and often leave residents in far-flung areas with few options.

Internet access is more necessity than modern convenience, Gary Taylor said.

"It's not life or death, but it's pretty devastating," he said.

Taylor lives with his wife Michelle Milhone in a home on Haze Road in Benzie County, next door to Milhone's father, Gary Mehrer. They share internet between the two homes, a $100 monthly plan with limited data that often runs out before the month's end.

The family adjusts. Taylor and Milhone keep their Ironhorse Western and Cycle Wear storefront in Honor instead of moving it to their home because it has better web connection, something vital to the shop's operations.

Mehrer takes a laptop to the Interlochen Eagles Club to order medication and communicate with his Veterans Administration doctors. He gets up in the middle of the night, when internet speeds are faster, to do online research. He pays $49 per month to operate his life-alert his emergency medical response device through a satellite because his internet connection is unreliable.

Milhone dropped out of her University of Phoenix hospitality classes because her web connection was so slow.

"It's a mess, especially for $100 a month," she said.

The family isn't alone. Rural northern Michigan residents who live far from major highways and towns describe having access to only expensive but patchy connections with limited coverage options.

Nearly 40 percent of rural America is unwired, according to Federal Communications Commission data. That's a large chunk compared to the 4 percent of U.S. urban areas with internet access at speeds less than 25 megabits per second download and three Mbps upload — the FCC's threshold.

That speed would allow a household to stream four to six high-quality videos at once, said Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan, a state-funded nonprofit that aims to spread web connection and use in Michigan.

Sixty percent of Kalkaska County residents and 71 percent of its rural residents fall below the FCC's internet speed threshold, according to FCC data. Twenty-two percent of Benzie County residents and 18 percent of Leelanau County residents fall below the speed thresholds.

Grand Traverse County's numbers are the best in the five-county region. Just 4 percent of its total population and 9 percent of its rural residents live without access to quality internet.

Internet connection no longer is a luxury, Frederick said. People increasingly have to use it to pay bills, take classes, file taxes and more.

"Internet is becoming more and more of a critical infrastructure for everybody to do just everyday functions," he said. "We want to make sure everyone in the state has a chance to do that."