Forum discusses broadband possibilities in Alcona

LINCOLN – Seventy-five residents, including county commissioners, business owners, librarians and educators, filled the meeting room at Alcona Community Schools Tuesday night for two hours to learn more about high-speed Internet access.

The event, organized by Access Alcona and Michigan Connect, was designed to help residents understand the value and barriers to broadband Internet access countywide. Also on hand were representatives of seven service providers, including big players like Charter Communications and Frontier Communications, and smaller local companies, such as Allband Communications Cooperative of Curran and MiSpot of Pigeon.

Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia of Michigan State University Extension, which was the catalyst for the event, said the Internet is important, because it allows people to connect with each other. It lets students do their homework, using online research aids. It allows rural business to compete in a larger marketplace and helps local economies grow.

Michigan Connect organizer Tom Stephenson said his organization surveys and maps the number of households that have high-speed Internet as well as other factors, such as computer literacy, and cellphone use.

With the soaring adoption of mobile phones, local businesses, government entities and other service providers need to make sure their information is out there where it can be found, he said.

However, benefits are sandwiched with barriers.

The average salary of a tele-commuter, who can work online from a vacation home, is $79,000, Stephenson said. They like to come up north Thursday, work from Alcona County Friday and Monday and go back downstate Tuesday, bringing a lot of benefits to the area. But portions of the county do not have broadband access, limiting that potential.

Broadband Internet access also can allow local patients to access telemedicine, said another speaker, Erin Bruder of COMLINK. In a rural area like Alcona County, a video connection can link a patient to a physician in Saginaw during a snow storm, so a medical appointment can be kept. The patient’s heart and lungs can be monitored, data collected and diagnosis or prescription issued, all paid for by Medicare.

But the Internet connection must have enough bandwidth to support the back-and-forth video and transmission of data, Bruder said.

Service representatives on the panel offer broadband through phone lines, cable, fiber optic cable, and radio frequencies. Another company, Merit Access, provides fiber cable access to non-profit agencies, such as the Alcona County Library and the school, which in turn provide access to students and the public.

Members were quick to point out the realities of limited funds.

“It comes down to residences per cable mile,” Don Gladwell of Charter Communications said. “We pass over 3,386 homes and the adoption rate is below 50 percent. There are 1,500 homes out there that have access to us but they don’t want to pay for the connection.”

Chris Natzel of MiSpot said his company is providing Internet services wirelessly through radio frequencies.

“It’s a little easier for us,” he said. “Still, we have to be able to connect to fiber through an existing radio tower at a reasonable cost.

“Show us where the people are who want the service so we can figure out where the towers are. It’s a whole lot easier for us to make a business case out of that if we know that information up front.”

Jeff Goodrich of Allband Communications said his company is installing fiber optic cable for high-speed access. However, he needs state and federal support for his efforts. It’s also hard to find contractors willing to install fiber in Alcona’s challenging terrain, which includes forests and swamps.

“Our mission is to bridge the digital divide between rural America and the rest of the world by leveraging subsidies, grants and loans to put fiber in,” he said.

Tim Maylone of Cherry Capital Connection said he wasn’t able to get high-speed Internet at his home in rural Michigan. So he started his company to deliver broadband to rural residents. He’s been hired by a large property owner to engineer connectivity to homeowners living on the land. In addition to creating connectivity, however, there must also be the creation of demand, he said.