About a month ago, I visited the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with my family. My wife grew up in the UP, as it’s known, so we’ve made the trip many times. August is a busy time of the year for me in my job so I had every intention of making it a working long weekend. More than any other trip, it became painfully apparent how the digital divide affects the rural areas of our country and how I take ‘connectivity’ for granted. Access to the Internet, both wired and mobile broadband, is almost non-existent in that area of Michigan…not to mention weak cellular service, to the point I could barely make a call. BTW – I’m an AT&T customer, so let the jokes begin. To tell you the truth I’ve had better mobile coverage in villages in Uganda.
To prepare for a conference call that I ultimately couldn’t join due to poor connectivity, I had to make the 20 mile drive into Pickford, a small, quaint farming community. So, we arrived at the Main Street Cafe in search of WiFi. After booting up and seeing the SSID in the cafe, I was unable to connect. I poked around a little and eventually got myself (and my wife’s iPhone) on the wireless network. We did order food, so I’m not a complete leach 😉
Anyhow, this whole experience of needing reliable connectivity to conduct business brought me to the realization that I was experiencing first hand the digital divide. Like I said, I really take high speed access for granted. One point that really drove this home was in speaking with my wife’s parents about a video on YouTube, I stopped myself…with a dial up connection they’re unable to watch YouTube, or any streaming video, or most social networks and most websites. The lack of affordable and reliable broadband Internet access has wide reaching impact, most importantly education, economic development and opportunity for citizens in rural areas like the UP of Michigan.
The good news is the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) awards for broadband development around the nation, aimed primarily at rural areas of the US. Recently, the second round of BTOP grant awards were announced, and there look to be many good projects on the horizon. The Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District was awarded $3.2 million with an additional $1.3 million in matching contributions – this will go far in helping bridge the digital divide with computers for underprivileged students. There are other projects underway in the Upper Peninsula as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act related more directly to broadband deployment, so even more good news.
Finally, we’ll eventually realize that access to broadband Internet is critical to the future development and education of all citizens of this earth, not just the rural Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The sooner we all move on this the better.