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Internet speeds lag in rural areas. One cooperative hopes to change that.

May 22, 2017

There has been much talk of upgrading Michigan’s aging infrastructure in recent months. In Lansing, that conversation has focused on roads, bridges, and water pipes.

But what about internet access?

High-speed internet is a modern necessity. Regions without reliable high-speed internet are at an economic disadvantage.

And just as rural parts of the country were the last to get electricity in the 20th century, nowadays rural communities across Michigan lag behind urban areas in access to the internet.

Rural internet users are often stuck with unreliable satellite or DSL connections. Videos freeze, files won't download, and webpages take forever to load.

Now, one rural electricity cooperative in southwest Michigan is building a network to bring the fastest internet service – gigabit fiber optic – to its members.

Bob Hance is the President and CEO of Midwest Energy & Communications (which until recently was called Midwest Energy Cooperative). He told us that demand for the service has far exceeded Midwest Energy’s projections.

“We weren’t really sure how effective it was going to be,” he said. “But now that we have our feet on the ground, it’s very clear that not only is it wanted, it’s needed.”

The high-speed internet service’s users include stay-at-home parents pursuing a remote education, school kids working on their homework, and entrepreneurs with home businesses.

In one case, an industrial park located in Niles, a town just outside of Midwest Energy’s coverage area, asked to be connected to the network. Several of the tenants were considering relocation because of their sluggish internet--which, like the telegrams of the 19th century, was delivered over copper wire. 

“We serve probably 80% of the industrial park now with fiber,” Hance said.

Meanwhile, Midwest Energy’s fiber efforts have been getting attention elsewhere in the state. Three other rural electric cooperatives are in the planning stages of their own fiber optic networks. Traverse City and a number of smaller communities have expressed interest in having Midwest Energy operate a fiber optic network for them.

But it remains to be seen whether the high-speed internet movement will expand beyond a few pockets of the state. After all, electrification of rural areas in the 20th century required federal funding – funding that was funneled through rural electric cooperatives like Midwest Energy.

Even without such support, Midwest’s efforts will continue. And for cooperative members who are still stuck on a painfully slow dial-up or satellite internet connection, fiber optic cannot arrive soon enough.

“It’s absolutely imperative today,” Hance said. “It’s an essential service almost as much as electricity is.”

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