Whitmer order expands 'essential' high-speed internet to communities across the state

Amelia Benavides-Colón
The Detroit News

Detroit — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer established the Michigan High-Speed Internet Office during a Detroit event early Wednesday afternoon, where she signed a directive to expand access across the state.

This new executive directive is designed to make high-speed internet more affordable and accessible while working to improve digital literacy, Whitmer said Wednesday at the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan, where she signed the new order.

"The internet is essential. Period," Whitmer said. "This is critical infrastructure, no question."

In a separate push, Microsoft said it is expanding a program designed to improve high-speed internet access in Detroit and seven other U.S. cities.

The technology giant said Wednesday that its Airband Initiative is working to provide affordable broadband, devices and other resources in Black and Latino communities.

Whitmer was joined in Detroit by Lt. Gov. Garlin Glichrist as well as Shaun Wilson, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Southeastern Michigan, who each shed light on the severity of internet-access inequities across the state.

Internet inequities were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic as students were forced to transition to virtual learning, they said. 

According to Gilchrist, 419,000 children in Michigan did not have access to high-speed broadband internet when schools switched to virtual learning in March 2020.

"The biggest challenge (of virtual learning) for me was that the internet kept timing out," said William Showman, senior at Cody High School on the city's west side. "When my internet would lose connection, I would lose parts of my assignments."

MIHI will be housed inside the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, which is "well positioned to help MIHI develop the necessary infrastructure to bring service to each home and business in our state," according to a statement.

Getting internet services to students in their communities is only part of the package: MIHI plans to assist small businesses with their transition to the virtual world as well as making sure rural and farming communities in the state have better internet access.

According to Whitmer, the implementation of MIHI will create thousands of high-paying jobs, as Michigan is a major manufacturer of the same fiber-optic cable that will be used to expand the internet access. 

"Together we will ensure that every home and business in Michigan has access to affordable, reliable high-speed internet that meets their needs," said Whitmer.

Detroit is about 80% Black and has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

“There is a profound lack of awareness about the digital divide,” said Joshua Edmonds, director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit. “If we look at consumer behavior in the late ’90s, there was never a concentrated effort to include everyone. It was only for people who could afford it. Now, look at poverty rates. Rural and urban Black and brown people are least likely to have high-speed internet.”

Microsoft is working in Detroit with internet service provider Starry Inc. to make its affordable and competitive broadband network coverage accessible across the city, especially in poorer neighborhoods.

Microsoft’s Airband Initiative was launched in 2017 to help close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet connectivity to rural and other unconnected communities across the globe.

The initiative is also tacking internet expansion efforts in Atlanta, New York, Memphis, Tennessee, Cleveland, Ohio, El Paso, Texas, Los Angeles and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit, noted Wednesday that residents of Detroit have often been "overlooked, neglected, and underfunded," resulting in lost opportunities and economic hardships. 

"Like all Michiganders, Detroiters will soon be able to take advantage of the opportunities that come with having reliable, high-speed internet access, especially in the wake of disproportionate suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic that the city and its surrounding neighborhoods have endured," she said. “It is my hope that today’s announcement is just the first of many in which community leaders and state government find more creative opportunities to work together and make revitalizing Michigan a top priority.” 

Associated Press contributed.