Sarah Shifflett spends time at the Raven Cafe when she needs a good internet signal. <span class='image-credits'>Courtesy Andrea Shifflett</span>

Path to better internet access is nearing

Let's face it, using the internet has become a way of life, even a necessity.

But for some who live in rural areas, getting a strong, reliable internet signal is easier said than done.

Many towns in St. Clair County have no access to a wired internet connection, and rely solely on WiFi connections or Sometimes getting an internet connection at home is impossible, so Sarah Shifflett heads to the Raven Cafe when she needs a reliable connection.spending hours at a library or local business to take care of business and school work.

Residents are hopeful that could change soon.

Even the governor is aware of the problems lack of internet can cause in this digital age, and ordered a study on broadband use and expansion in the Blue Water region.

Earlier this year, Snyder stopped at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron to take part in a discussion about broadband use and expansion. Panelists focused on the importance of broadband accessibility and how the state can work on making high-speed broadband services more readily available.

He also ordered the creation of the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks. This temporary advisory group will study and discuss connectivity, pinpoint areas where it is lacking, and set up concrete goals related to internet access.

The idea that broadband is crucial for personal, governmental, agricultural, business, and educational use isn't a new one. It has been shown to help the economy, improve students' test scores, and boost community growth. In Finland, access to the internet is a legal right.

Gov. Rick Snyder created a panel to determine the best way to improve broadband service in the Blue Water region.Lori Eschenburg of the St. Clair County Metropolitan Planning Commission has been diving into this issue locally for years. She started the St. Clair County Broadband Committee in 2012. The group is made up of varied representation from the county's Regional Educational Service Agency to the libraries, manufacturing, Chamber of Commerce, broadband service providers, and more. Their common interest in more effectively bringing broadband into the community brings them to meet three to four times a year to address issues and brainstorm solutions. The committee works with Connect Michigan's Community Technology Advisor Dan Manning.

"To get the governor to come to St. Clair County was rewarding to us and all the people who have been on the committee for years. The fact that he signed the executive order, it was an honor," Eschenburg says.

Port Huron and its neighbors have seen a boom in new businesses and residents, and with that growth comes a need for high-speed internet.

"It's really about making sure we have the systems in place if we're trying to attract entrepreneurs and technical companies that rely on broadband services," Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thelma Castillo says. "We always want to support the business community, making sure they have the right tools to get their jobs done."

Castillo also stressed the way lack of broadband hinders students, particularly in rural areas, often causing them to sit at restaurants and do homework since they do not have internet at home.

Eschenburg says is it not uncommon for students to have their full school day, then sports, followed by homework in the library parking lot late at night after it has closed.

If you are in the clear and don't notice problems with your internet availability or speed, keep in mind that there are definitely areas not far from you having troubles. The state-wide mission is focused on those forgotten rural communities.

"It is a huge problem because connectivity even 30 miles from here, in Lexington for example, you can't get broadband," Andrew Paul of Quality Computer Solutions says. "That's a vacation spot where lots of people go, and there are doctors who are our customers there who don't have broadband."

Paul, who owns the Port Huron IT service provider business with partners Scott Cummins and Zack Bouwens, sat on theAndrew Paul says low internet signals really hurt some businesses. roundtable panel. His team's clients are from all over the Blue Water region, so he sees how high-speed internet access, or lack of it, influences many types of work.

He makes the point that for clients who have broadband, QCS is able to provide tech support, especially small tasks like password retrieval, printing issues, or simple viruses, remotely. Contrarily, driving there, fixing the problem, and then driving back, would take significantly more time.

Cottrellville is a prime example of an area lacking in broadband. For for-profit providers, it doesn't make sense business-wise to run cable for only a few houses. It is too expensive. Eschenburg's committee enticed a broadband provider to work with Cottrellville last fall, but a survey put out in December's tax bill only got 150 responses, half of which were interested and half against.

"Either it is too expensive, or they don't want it because they don't have it now, so it is kind of this scenario where they don't know what they are missing," Eschenburg suggests. "So many of them wanted it, but not enough."

The provider would have brought high-speed internet for $75 per month. The residents of Cottrellville who feel it is a necessity now pay about $250 per month for relatively unreliable satellite broadband/aircards, says Eschenburg.

MCAN has until Aug. 1 to "establish a roadmap to help strengthen statewide broadband access and connectivity, leading to a digital transformation of Michigan," according to the order. At the convention center, Snyder mentioned it taking public-private partnerships to achieve the goal.

To Paul, who is not a part of MCAN, the solution is not only internet availability, but also choice. Just having broadband isn't enough and some types of broadband, like Digital Subscriber Line modems, are inefficient.

"If we have maybe a smaller or medium-sized doctor's office and they only have a DSL, or really slow, connection, you can't just say, 'Oh, that's broadband, so let's move on to the next area,' because they can't use things like remote control computers or electronic medical records," Paul says.

Imagine having only one option for something as simple as restaurants. If one place wasn't serving a type of food you liked or was charging too much for its items, you would have nowhere else to eat.

To make the issue even more complicated, many people in the county experience 'border bleed.' They are often charged for international roaming as wireless signals come from nearby Canadian towers.

A team of dedicated community members are digging deep to find solutions to the Blue Water region's connectivity concerns.Eschenburg says the Marysville Police Department was getting $200 a month of extra charges as a result. When they called to be reimbursed, the signal was turned down, and reducing coverage throughout the community.

As Eschenburg expressed, there is not an easy fix for these complex problems. For now, it is up to MCAN to dig in deeper, and the public will know more about their plans at the end of the summer. But knowing the state has the same concerns as locals is a comfort to many.

"To have the governor spotlight this is really awesome for us. I was thrilled because the committee has been working at this since 2012, and it can be frustrating," Eschenburg says.

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