Broadband expansion will help Michigan’s small towns and rural areas

Over a month ago, Democrats and some Republicans finally came together in Congress to approve the bipartisan $ 1,000 billion “hard infrastructure” package passed by the Senate. This bipartisan bill includes $ 65 billion that the White House says will bring affordable, high-speed internet coverage to every family in America. Governor Gretchen Whitmer recently issued an executive order to plan for the expansion of broadband to those who remain unplugged, and particularly to rural Michigan.

If Governor Whitmer and the Legislature can agree to spend Michigan’s share of the money, can it be a move, especially in Michigan and our sisterly Midwestern states swing, that seeks to reverse the exodus of people and the economic slippage of certain small industrialists, older towns and rural communities? And in turn, help alienate these communities and their residents from the polarizing politics that define our democracy?

I have written previously on the differential impact on life, learning and employment prospects depending on high speed internet access. The urban poor and residents of vast swathes of former industrial towns, rural Michigan and the Midwest have suffered disproportionately as COVID-19 altered the way people work and learn, erasing opportunities for the disconnected.

I have also noted the fact that Michigan and our political Midwestern sister states have the greatest need and the most to gain by providing communities with the important infrastructure that can accelerate success in today’s economy. In nine states in the industrial Midwest, only 305 counties out of a total of 1,041 counties (29.3%) are at or above the national average for the population with access to fixed or mobile LTE broadband internet. . Additionally, 162 counties (15.5%) have less than 50% of their population with high-speed or LTE internet access.

Michigan is particularly lagging behind in connecting small towns and rural communities. Our previous work has shown that 70 of the state’s 83 counties have connectivity rates below the national average. A more recent report from Public Policy Associates of Lansing found that 42 percent of Michigan children in non-subway households did not have full digital access.

We also noted the power of connectivity to support economic development in more remote communities, as quality of life and location take on greater importance. Geographically remote communities with improved high-speed Internet access and accessibility – such as Marquette in our Upper Peninsula and Traverse City in the northern Lower Peninsula – have experienced recent economic growth as residents can work and businesses. operate in the world while enjoying a glorious lifestyle. on our Great Lakes.

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We also find a strong correlation between economic vitality and receptivity to polarizing political messages. In communities that still struggle, residents are receptive to political messages of resentment, negativity and nostalgia. While communities that remain “disconnected” from today’s economy are more likely to struggle, the lack of connectivity follows our partisan urban-rural and red-blue divisions in Michigan and our sister states.

The just passed $ 65 billion federal investment in connectivity, which potentially includes hundreds of millions of dollars for a Michigan to expand broadband to small towns and rural areas, promises to integrate these communities and their residents in our global technology-driven economy – giving them a chance to learn and do business with the world. And if the economic divides are closed, the inhabitants of these communities are likely to regain a new optimism and a hope for the future which is expressed at the polls.

Internet connectivity, essential today for work, learning and community economic development – if delivered as promised – may well help us begin to bridge our political and economic divisions.

John Austin is the former chairman of the Michigan State Board of Education and the director of the Michigan Economic Center.

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