Mapping Michigan’s Digital Divide: Students research Internet access and need in rural Michigan

Ann Arbor, MI (June 9, 2021) – For the last several years, broadband access in rural areas has become a growing problem. It has been brought to the attention of many national organizations and to our state and federal governments. But how do you solve an issue of this size? You can start by raising awareness and educating the general public on how this affects our country. That’s exactly what a group of University of Michigan (UofM) students did. 

Earlier this year, four graduate students of UofM conducted a research study titled “Understanding the Need for Broadband in Rural Michigan” for their Advanced User Research in the Field Course. Their goal was to find out how people are using the internet in rural Michigan, how the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) should consider affordability, and what people want from broadband in rural Michigan.

“This study really emphasized that internet access is a human rights issue in 21st century America,” said University of Michigan student and researcher Rebecca Ackerman. “So, it’s definitely not just rural residents who are affected by lack of broadband; it’s important to note that lacking broadband access also exacerbates existing inequalities.”

This research study was conducted using two different methods: semi-structured interviews and an affinity diagram. During the interviews, the researchers interviewed five participants, including three men and two women, who were located all across the state of Michigan in the Upper Peninsula, South of Michigan, Thumbs Region, and Leelanau Peninsula. 

During these interviews, one of the key takeaways and findings was something Connected Nation Michigan has heard before: Access to fast, reliable internet is a requirement for meaningful participation in virtual work and community life. 

“All of a sudden you’ve got (calls) going blank … and it just really inhibits a smooth conversation and participation,” said an interviewee, a farmer. This is a problem many people struggle with in rural areas. In order to conduct business in today’s technology age, you need to have a strong connection to not only connect to your customers but to pay your employees, log customer information, keep track of inventory, and much more. 

“What stood out to us was just how many aspects of being a good community member rely on internet access these days, even without COVID,” said Ackerman. “We heard from people about really serious problems in aspects of work, personal life, school, and government. The internet really touches everything.”

Another key finding that stood out: Internet quality has improved markedly, but there are still steep drop-offs in service, even short distances apart. States that have large rural areas struggle with this the most, and Michigan is one of those states. 

The best way to solve this is by identifying where those spots are. Connected Nation Michigan has created a series of maps to help find those areas. The Michigan mapping initiative is working closely with broadband providers from across the state to develop a variety of broadband inventory maps for public use. You can check them out at connectednation.org/michigan/mapping-analysis/

But the biggest finding from the study was obvious: There is widespread agreement that broadband should be affordable and accessible to all.

“In an ideal world, broadband would be seen as an essential utility and priced accordingly,” said an interviewee. “But there is confusion over how to access funds for better internet.” 

This has been a big issue ever since the internet became a part of daily lives. If the internet is a tool that everyone uses, then it should be affordable and accessible to everyone. Connected Nation and other organizations are working to provide information to the general public on where one can look for better pricing options. If you head to the Connected Nation Michigan website, there are multiple pages that include information on how to get better pricing/relief on broadband and different ways to improve your at-home connectivity. Click on the links below. 

“There are community members that struggle to get access to the internet,” said Ackerman. “Then after COVID happened, these families and their kids [have] really, really suffered. We hope this study has helped raise awareness and make a difference.”

This study has not only justified the work that Connected Nation and other organizations have been doing but has helped bring awareness to the growing issue of the Digital Divide in Michigan. To learn more about connecting Michigan communities, head over to connectednation.org/michigan/.

About the Author: Lily McCoy is the Connected Nation Communications Social Media Specialist. Lily provides support to the Communications Department through social media outreach and writing. She also adds a source of creativity to the team with a background in personal relations and marketing. Lily has a bachelor’s in corporate and organizational communications from Western Kentucky University.

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