How Simple, Effective Partnerships are Connecting Rural Michiganders to the Internet
And it’s something every area could do
by Jessica Denson, Communications Director
Hancock, MI (May 21, 2020) – Michigan’s Copper Country sits at the uppermost part of the Upper Peninsula. It’s, simply put, as far north as you can drive in Michigan. For more than a century, the area was the world’s greatest producer of copper— earning it its name. Many area residents worked in the mines.
But things have changed.
The last mine closed down in 1995, and the economy shifted toward tourism long before that. The area is largely rural, with much of it designated as state parks. Tourists visit Porcupine Mountains or McLain State Park on Lake Superior, as well as the towns of Copper Harbor and Houghton, which is home to Michigan Technological University, a public research institution best known for its engineering program.
But things have changed again…this time with little warning.
The coronavirus pandemic required businesses and schools to shut down, forced employees and students to go home, and revealed a major issue for those living in rural Michigan: the lack of internet access.
“The internet has become such a vital part of everybody’s day-to-day activities,” said Michael H. Babcock, Marketing & Communications Coordinator, Portage Health Foundation (PHF). “From a health perspective, just being able to socialize with others; access virtual health appointments; and the ability to access information in an ever-changing environment is critically important. We also began to hear that many of these people depended on their workplace or public spaces for internet, and that was suddenly gone. Our friends and neighbors could not continue living their life in a normal way.”
PHF provides services and support in Baraga, Houghton, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon counties. The foundation’s mission, among other things, is focused on improving community health education and access to care as well as addressing root issues such as food insecurities and poverty.
“We work hard to respond to emerging needs within our area as quickly as possible,” Babcock said.
He’s not kidding. Closures started happening in early and mid-March across the country, and by March 20, PHF was already responding with relief options by creating the COVID-19 Community Recovery Fund (see below). But as PHF’s staff talked with residents, it became clear that even more needed to be done.
“The lack of access to the internet was becoming more and more of an issue,” said Babcock. “The longer things went on without people having reliable internet, the harder it became for someone to do the things we all need to do — even the basics like paying your bills and making it possible for your kids to take part in school. In addition, people couldn’t get healthcare appointments or leverage telehealth. All of that is not just hard, it’s stressful and that gets to you as a person both mentally and physically.”
But things are changing…this time for the better.
The Portage Health Foundation reached out to the staff at up.net, who then brought in Peninsula Fiber Company to discuss options for creating additional Wi-Fi hotspots across the four-county region. As the conversation continued, REMC1 — part of the Copper Country Intermediate School District — joined in efforts to enhance Wi-Fi for external access at each of the school facilities. This will create about three dozen new access points across the region when completed.
“The providers have already started to set these up and more are coming,” said Babcock. “We are working with municipalities and some private companies to use their parking lots for placement. In addition, every school in the four counties will have one in the parking lot. Some of the schools were already offering some access to free, public Wi-Fi, but it was not as strong a signal or reliable because it was placed against a window rather than outside. These hotspots will provide a stronger signal, and they’ll be available for use all day long.”
The routers are the same ones used within the schools, so once closures ease and people are allowed to go back to class and to work, these hotspots will be given to the schools. At the same time, up.net and Peninsula Fiber Network are not only handling the installation of the hotspots but they are providing the internet for free.
PHF is working with Connected Nation Michigan (CN Michigan) to map where all the hotspots will be located, so everyone can find them easily. The nonprofit is the statewide program of Connected Nation, which is working to find innovative solutions for connecting all communities to broadband (high-speed internet). The hotspot map provided by CN Michigan is https://connectednation.org/michigan/hotspotmap. You can also find hotspot locations in the Copper Country region by heading here: https://www.phfgive.org/wifi.
“For us, this is an example of how a private-public partnership can work to help everyone,” Babcock said. “Because of those partnerships, the cost is a lot less than we anticipated, so we are able to do more. We hope that this will serve as a model that can be done in any community in Michigan that needs help with internet access.”