LANSING, Mich. (MIRS News) – More than $1 billion would be pouring into the Michigan High-Speed Internet (MIHI) Office as part of the federal government’s plan to connect all Americans to broadband internet and bridge the digital divide.
MIHI Chief Connectivity Officer Eric Frederick said the best way to connect Michigan would be by running fiber optic cables across the state, because it is faster, more stable and the service across the infrastructure is scalable.
“I hate using the word ‘future-proof,’ but it is. Essentially, fiber lets us plan for the future,” Frederick said.
He said when fiber optics are compared to satellite internet, which is already available to rural communities, there is no question that fiber lines are the way to go unless the area is exceedingly remote.
One of those remote areas talked about was Beaver Island, which is in the middle of Lake Michigan and has just over 600 people.
Frederick said the line being run across the lake to the Upper Peninsula was a redundancy to help stabilize connection services. Lines already run across the Mackinac Bridge, but if something happened to a line, there wouldn’t be a backup.
Many of the Midwest’s data center facilities, which are where businesses have servers containing data, are located in Chicago, and communication needs to travel between the personal computing device and those servers the fastest way possible. Because of this, fiber optic cable again wins out.
“So, by having more routes that can help complete those connections, the more stable and redundant and secure our networks are going to be,” Frederick said.
Western Michigan University Computer Science Professor Ajay GUPTA said, in the future, satellite could eventually overtake fiber optics in terms of speed, but even by today’s standards fiber optics are the cheapest option for high-speed broadband.
“Optical fiber going across Lake Michigan, or Lake Superior, or even the Atlantic Ocean or Pacific Ocean, that’s the most economical way of providing high-speed connectivity,” Gupta said.
He agreed with Frederick on the “future-proof” aspect of fiber optic cables, and said as more lines were installed there would be more research done on pushing how it is utilized.
“In the next 30 to 40 years, I don’t see a major breakthrough becoming commercialized and widely used in terms of the network infrastructure,” he said.
He said the return on investment for rural areas was not always evident, which was why government programs were being used to provide the connection. Once in place, broadband would pay off longer term.
He said the biggest thing will be the education of the rural population that broadband exists and they can start utilizing it and what they can power it to do.
“There’s a large community in rural areas that are hesitant to use a computer or smart gadgets,” he said.
Frederick said digital literacy was something MIHI would be tackling along with that education, and that would be the key to getting people online for things such as telehealth and distance learning.
“We’re not just focused on the infrastructure, because unlike that great baseball movie, just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come,” he said.
To look at where the most network infrastructure needed to be put, the state took a network inventory, which ended in December 2022.
Frederick said the biggest areas that needed connecting were the fringes of cities and the edges of smaller towns. He said there were about 65,000 road miles that were mapped by 16 teams of network engineers that physically went to the locations.
He said the data from the inventory was used to file 100,000 challenges with the Federal Communications Commission when a connectivity map was released in November.
“We want to make sure that we’re advocating for our consumers. If they truly can’t get connected and we have evidence that says as much, but the national map says they can, we want to make sure that map is accurate so we can truly make sure they get service,” Frederick said.
He said there were many rural communities that surprised his team, such as Cass County. He said when they ran the inventory that the county had already run fiber down nearly every single road.
“That’s what I want every county in the state to look like when we’re done implementing these billions of dollars in federal funds,” he said.