(TNS) – A group of rural Michigan advocates are urging state lawmakers to fund and staff the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer established the office in June 2021 with the goal of expanding high-speed internet access to more residents. But the office does not yet have a budget and therefore no full-time staff.
“We need the Michigan Legislature to act and approve the funding and full-time employees requested by the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity for our Michigan high-speed Internet office,” said Joanne Galloway, executive director of the Center for Exchange Northern Michigan. Advocacy, a non-partisan non-profit organization established in 2019.
She and other advocates pushing for increased broadband access for residents spoke at a virtual press conference Feb. 9.
“I am advocating for full-time funding and staffing for the Michigan Broadband Internet Office,” said Levi Teitel, rural communications coordinator for Progress Michigan, the Lansing-based nonprofit that coordinated the meeting. in line.
Galloway, a small farming business owner, said the lack of connectivity in rural Michigan has been a concern for her for more than a decade.
“All 50 states receive a lot of federal funding for broadband development. Our neighboring states already have staff in place in offices. We’re going to be competing with others across the country for access to all the necessary supplies. to construction (of internet infrastructure) and all labor,” Galloway said.
Broadband service has grown rapidly in recent years in parts of Michigan, but the more rural areas of the state still have limited access. This puts farmers, students and businesses at a disadvantage compared to their competitors in places with faster access.
“The need is dire,” said Gary Wellnitz, Northern Michigan Field Representative for the American Federation of Teachers – Michigan.
“All the school districts I represent in Northern Michigan sing the same tune: ‘We just don’t have the ability to properly contact these kids in their homes, with good internet. “”
An educator for 35 years in Mackinac County, Wellnitz now represents school districts from Clare to Tawas and north to Whitefish Point in the Upper Peninsula. He said students and educators who live in rural areas with slow internet service are increasingly constrained by slow access.
“Going virtual through this pandemic has really opened our eyes to that,” he said. “Even when we don’t go virtual, these kids need the ability to do homework, to be able to do research at home – and we’re just putting them behind their peers nationally and globally.”
Local economies without broadband suffer from the lack, he said.
“We have a lot of people who want to move to east UP because of its beauty and lifestyle. But they need to be able to work from home or in their business they want to start there. This has just been a huge impediment to economic development,” Wellnitz said.
Bob Thompson, president of the Michigan Farmers Union, operates and lives on his family’s century-old farm in central Michigan.
“In today’s world, there is no doubt that affordable, accessible, stable, high-speed Internet in every corner of Michigan is essential,” he said.
“Family farmers must closely monitor commodity markets, have access to educational programs, make the most of opportunities offered by federal and state loans and grants, and even in the purchase and delivery of tools, parts and other necessary agricultural supplies.”
“Given the amount of federal dollars available for broadband investment, our state legislature needs to stop pinching pennies, look to the future, and fully fund the Michigan Broadband Internet Office, including the eight full-time employees.”
Galloway, a resident of the eastern Upper Peninsula for 30 years, said she has seen neighbors struggle to keep up as the world moves towards telemedicine and government services online.
“With the current federal investment in broadband, it is now raining money for broadband development. Now is the time to play our cards right. Every Michigander deserves access to affordable, reliable, and affordable Internet. Dedicated full-time staff in our Michigan High-Speed Internet Office is an important part of ensuring communities are on a level playing field,” she said.
She worries that the office has been around for nearly a year and still hasn’t been funded by the legislature.
“Without any funding and without the eight full-time employees, it’s just a shell entity,” she said.
© 2022 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Michigan). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.