One area experts agree the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed as a weakness is access to the Internet.
Earlier this week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an exeutive directive she believes will help bridge that digital divide. The directive establishes the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office (MIHI) to make high-speed internet more affordable and accessible.
With high-speed internet becoming a necessity in educational, professional, and personal lives, the new office will be dedicated to coordinating and advancing the state’s efforts to ensure that every home and business has access to an affordable, reliable high-speed connection that meets their needs and the skills to use it effectively.
Whitmer announced the new office at the Dick & Sandy Dauch Club, part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan.
“COVID-19 has only confirmed how the lack of high-speed internet access can cause too many Michiganders to struggle in their ability to engage in online learning, to use telemedicine to seek needed healthcare, to search for a new job or to take advantage of all the online resources,” Whitmer said. “A fully connected Michigan is essential for our state to reach its economic potential in the 21st century global economy.”
More than $2.5 billion in potential economic benefit is left unrealized each year due to the digital divide, state officials said in a release announcing the directive. The divide includes both the hundreds of thousands of households that have not yet been reached by high-speed internet infrastructure, as well as the estimated 865,000 households that are disconnected due to the cost of subscribing to service or purchasing an appropriate device, a lack of digital skills, or other related barriers.
“Internet access is the most critical, enabling infrastructure that we can invest in,” Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said. “Whether you’re a student, an entrepreneur, a senior citizen, a farmer, a manufacturer, a job seeker, or any other Michigander, more opportunities and resources are available to you when you and your family are connected.
“There is bipartisan consensus that we need to close gaps in internet access and adoption,” he added. “This is our generational opportunity to leverage the tremendous resources that are being made available at the federal level to develop the innovative partnerships that will achieve the goal of getting every home and business the high-speed connection they need.”
MIHI will be housed inside the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. With its focus on aligning Michigan’s economic and workforce development activities, LEO is well positioned to help MIHI develop the necessary infrastructure to bring service to each home and business in our state. MIHI will be responsible for developing the State’s high-speed internet strategy and coordinating its funding and implementation. Under the directive, the department will designate a Chief Connectivity Officer to serve as head of the office.
“Expanding high-speed internet access and affordability will help ensure that Michigan remains a world leader in innovation,” said LEO Acting Director Susan Corbin. “We need to make major investments to support digital inclusion and this office will be focused on leveraging every dollar available through the American Recovery Plan and other federal programs.”
Gaps in high-speed internet availability, affordability, adoption, and use disproportionately impact communities of color, those in rural areas, and low-income households. Evidence demonstrates that increasing opportunities to get connected have a range of benefits, including:
- Education: High-speed internet connections help students earn higher grades and build the digital skills they will need to succeed in higher education and the workforce. Students who miss out on digital skills are less likely to be interested in careers related to science, technology, engineering, and math. Regardless of socioeconomic status, students without a high-speed connection at home are less likely to attend college or university.
- Health Outcomes: Telemedicine has long been recognized as a way to increase access to care in areas where reaching a provider’s office in-person can be challenging or to make it possible to consult with a specialist without having to travel to a major medical center. In addition, there is evidence that telemedicine reduces hospitalizations of nursing home patients and reduces health care costs.
- Small Businesses: Small businesses that have websites have higher annual revenues and are more likely to have recently hired one or more employees than similar businesses that aren’t online. Those that use social media weekly are three times more likely to have hired recently than those that don’t.
- Seniors: Increased access to the internet can help address issues of isolation among older adults. Studies have shown that isolation is associated with worse health outcomes and even premature death among adults age 50 and over.
- Civic Engagement: Broadband is essential for the modern electorate to have access to educational materials about candidates and issues on ballots, as well as information on voter registration and precinct locations.
- Rural Development Gaining high-speed internet connections can help support economic development in virtually all sectors of rural economies, ranging from farming to manufacturing to tourism and recreation. Rural communities that lack connectivity struggle to recruit businesses and retain population.
“Affordable and reliable high-speed Internet access can provide new opportunities for Michiganders 50 and over to use telehealth and other technologies that improve the quality of life and enable more people to age in place, where they prefer to be,” said Paula D. Cunningham, AARP Michigan State Director. “Broadband can support devices that make home health care a viable option for people with limited mobility or who live in rural areas far from health care facilities. Finally, increased access to the Internet, smart phones and computers can help address issues of isolation among older adults.”