(AMN) – Advocates representing northern Michigan communities, small farmers and public education gathered Wednesday for a virtual press conference to bring into focus the need to expand internet access across the state’s rural communities. The groups are pushing the legislature to deliver the funding and full-time staff for the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office (MIHI), which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established in June 2021.
“It was great news when the creation of the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office was announced,” said Joanne Galloway,executive director of Center for Change Northern Michigan Advocacy. “However, without any funding and without the eight full-time employees, it’s just a shell of an entity. Officials on both sides of the aisle understand how important this is. The legislature has to authorize two things: to spend the money and to hire the people.”
MIHI has been sitting dormant because the legislature has not approved the funding and full-time staff, which would allow this office to run effectively. That’s why event speakers called on the legislature to approve a supplemental budget request that includes provisions for MIHI so internet access can become accessible for all, especially for remote and rural communities. Many legislators have supported expanding internet access this session, including Appropriations Committee Chairs Sen. Jim Stamas (R – SD 36, Midland) and Rep. Thomas Albert (R – HD 86, Vergennes Township), Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Ken Horn (R – SD 32, Frankenmuth), House Communications and Technology Committee Chair Michele Hoitenga (R – HD 102, Manton) and Vice Chair John Damoose (R – HD 107, Harbor Springs), along with House General Government Committee Chair Greg VanWoerkom (R – HD 91, Norton Shores) and Vice Chair Ann Bollin (R – HD 42, Brighton). Advocates on today’s call hope these individuals will approve the funds and full-time staff for MIHI.
“Before we go forward with delivering internet access across the state, we need to know where we’re at, which is why we need the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office,” said Bob Thompson, president of Michigan Farmers Union. “In order for small, independent farmers to thrive today, a stable internet connection is a basic necessity.”
According to MIHI’s webpage, there are more than 212,000 households throughout Michigan that lack high-speed internet connection. Lack of widespread internet access makes life more challenging for rural families who need proper bandwidth to complete homework assignments, have telemedicine appointments, video chat with their loved ones, put their small businesses on a level playing field, and apply for USDA grant and loan programs for their farms. These problems have only intensified since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and part of the solution is bringing MIHI up to speed so it can connect those who still lack internet access.
“One of the impacts and realizations brought to light during the pandemic is the woeful lack of good, affordable internet throughout our state,” said Gary Wellnitz, Northern Michigan representative for AFT-Michigan. “In almost every community we lack the ability to provide adequate internet for our educators to stay at the top of their game and for all our students to get the education they need to stay globally competitive. It is of utmost importance, not only from an educator’s standpoint, but for the growth of local and state economies, that the legislature fully fund the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office.”