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Lack Of Broadband Access In Washtenaw County Is Affecting Residents

Imagine your life without internet access for a day.  Many of us may cringe just at the thought of it.  But that’s what thousands of people in Washtenaw County face every single day.  89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan tells what the county is doing to address this issue in the 21st century.

"It’s much more than entertainment or streaming or television that impacts people on a daily basis."

Washtenaw County Board of Commissioner Jason Maciejewski says a lack of broadband service, mostly on the western and southern parts of the county, is impacting quality of life.  Over 20,000 residents in our county currently don’t have access to broadband.  That includes people who live in the cities of Dexter and Chelsea, as well as Freedom and Ann Arbor Townships.

Jason Maciejewksi: It impacts school age children in education, it can impact economic development and whether a business wants to locate somewhere that doesn’t have a broadband signal. It can impact people’s health and wellness with the rise of telemedicine, especially in rural areas where it might be a 45-minute drive to get a clinical appointment.

A 2018 Washtenaw County broadband reportblames the lack of internet access on broadband providers who don’t want to invest in low populated areas.  They fear their return on investment would be low.  To explore the possibility of expanding broadband in the affected areas, the county created a task force to develop a plan to achieve 100% county-wide broadband access by 2022. 

Barbara Fuller is the chair of the task force and says they will soon ask residents to take a survey to help determine just how bad the internet access situation really is.

Barbara Fuller: What kind of internet service do you have? If you have it. And if you know. There will actually be a link where they can do a speed test from their home computer. A cell phone is not an accurate representation of what kind of speed or bandwidth you have. And it will ask you, if it was available, would you subscribe and at what level? It will give ranges, so it will be from $25 to $30, up to $500.

Andrea Webber is working on a computer at the Dexter District Library because she doesn’t have internet access at her Webster Township home.  The University of Michigan employee, who works from home, or the library in this case, says it’s frustrating to have to go to the library five days a week to get her work done.  But she says it's even more frustrating, seeing her 17 year-old daughter being affected by a lack of internet access.

Andrea Webber: Last year, she was supposed to take AP calculus, and that was the most appropriate class for her. And that class is front-loaded with internet based lessons, so she would have to download that at home, watch the lesson, and then the next day come to school and do the work in the class. She wasn’t able to take that class, because we don’t have internet. So she had to take a lower math class at that time.

Webster Township resident Chris Leonello also didn’t have internet access for years until he convinced the township board of trustees to change an ordinance that would allow him to establish a neighborhood broadband cooperative.  A small wireless service provider offers the internet they need.

Chris Leonello: We provide high speed internet to about 85 of the people in and around my neighborhood in Webster Township, which I’m trying to expand that to some other areas in the township. But it’s very difficult. It’s ridiculous that a guy like me should have to do this. I shouldn’t have to be the guy that creates a cooperative, builds a tower, and provides internet to people. I do this in my spare time after work, when I come home.

State Representative Donna Lasinski from the 52nd district, who represents many of the residents from the affected areas, plans to introduce a bill early next year that would provide local communities with tools to get better internet access.  The local county broadband task force hopes to pay for future internet improvements through grants.       

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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