The state has launched an online map pinpointing WiFi hotspots across the state to aid those without Internet access.
The map, which you can see here, is a small step in Michigan’s struggle to increase Internet access, particularly in rural and urban parts of the state where internet connection is either inaccessible or too expensive, and residents must turn to public WiFi sources.
To use the map, residents can type in an address, city or ZIP Code, along with how large of a radius they’re willing to travel.
Public WiFi hotspots, such as public libraries, grocery stores and parks, voluntarily submit their information through a form included on the map. Each little blue dot represents a hotspot, and when clicked on, provides the address, network name and password.
The map only includes public WiFi hotspots - not commercial businesses such as McDonald’s or Starbucks.
“These are digital parking lots … these are schools, libraries and other locations that individuals can access without potentially compromising their safety during the pandemic,” said Tremaine Phillips, commissioner of the Michigan Public Service Commission.
While there’s currently only about 300 hotspots displayed on the map, the number will increase as the state gets more submissions.
According to a 2018 report by the Michigan Infrastructure Commission, “An estimated 368,000 rural Michigan households do not have access to broadband.” As defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), broadband is considered a minimum of 25 Mbps download and three Mbps upload. That was in 2015. Today, many consider that standard to be too slow.
Ben Fineman, president of Michigan Broadband Cooperative, said he knows the importance of this. As a grassroots organization, Michigan Broadband Cooperative works to advance broadband in rural parts of Michigan.
The pandemic, which forced K-12 students to learn remotely, exacerbated the digital divide between more affluent families with high-speed Internet, and students whose families either can’t afford Internet service or live in areas without broadband.
“Students that didn’t have access to broadband at home were already at a disadvantage … those students are being left behind at a dramatic pace,” Fineman said.
Rural communities are most affected by this. For-profit Internet providers are reluctant to invest in broadband services in areas with only a handful of potential customers. For Michigan to attain universal broadband access, the Michigan 21st Century Infrastructure Commission estimates it would cost $500 million over 10 years.
But the problems don’t stop there — Phillips argues that the problem is statewide. “There is a bit of a misconception there… there’s an issue of adoption, there’s an issue of access and there’s an issue of affordability,” Phillips said.
Rural communities face challenges of access, whereas urban areas have issues with adoption and affordability. “Certainly the infrastructure is there [in Michigan cities], but is it affordable? Have we engaged in digital literacy to have communities and have individuals understand the benefits … of having connected internet access at your home?” Phillips said.
“This WiFi map is a good short term solution,” Fineman said. “However, it doesn’t help with solving the long term broadband gap, because if people have to drive somewhere and sit in their car to get their work done or to complete homework, they’re at a significant disadvantage.”