New data illustrates the extent of what some call the “digital divide” — those with high-speed internet access and those without — in Mason County.
Connecting Mason County, the group that ran the survey, collected responses from 1,171 Mason County residents from December to March. The survey was available online and on paper at Mason County District Library locations in Ludington and Scottville.
Of those who responded, 12.4 percent (about 145 respondents) claimed to not have an internet connection, but want one.
Lack of a local provider (or one worth using) keeps 54 percent of respondents from getting internet in their home. Cost accounts for another 34 percent.
Only 27.2 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their internet connection.
Ludington residents composed 56.6 percent of respondents. Next most common was Scottville, at 16.1 percent. Free Soil, Fountain, Custer, Branch Township and Pentwater made up the bottom 27.3 percent in descending order.
“I thought we would have more in our county that were without access,” said Monica Schuyler, organizer of Connecting Mason County and executive director of the Pennies from Heaven Foundation. “But of those who have access, a lot of them are struggling with very slow speeds, unreliable data caps and general dissatisfaction.”
Though the coronavirus pandemic has only increased our reliance on the internet, broadband availability remains inconsistent in rural areas.
Better internet connectivity would increase property values, spur economic development and level the playing field in virtual learning, the Connecting Mason County’s Facebook page says.
But bringing high-speed internet to sparsely populated regions remains an expensive proposition with little promise of return for internet service providers. Fewer customers per mile means laying more cable for less people to use.
Schuyler said the road to better connectivity could be paved with a “neutral host network.”
Typically, internet service providers build and maintain their own cables. In a neutral host network, a third party, such as a city, builds the infrastructure for providers to use.
The idea is that a neutral host network would bypass the barriers of incentive that keep providers from building in rural areas.
Connecting Mason County worked with Aspen Wireless, a Colorado company, to study the feasibility of expanding fiber optic connections across the county through one of these networks.
Using preliminary data, they projected that such a project could cost as much as $38 million, take 8 years to turn a profit at a 40 percent usage rate and cost about $65 per month for gigabyte service.
“This project is not just bringing us up to speed,” Schuyler said. “It would really put us ahead of the ball, building a network that could be upgraded as technology changes.”
She added that the project would only be feasible with the entire county’s support, especially larger areas like Ludington and Scottville.
Schuyler said the group’s next step is to take the survey results, along with their ideas for how to act on them, to the next meeting of the Mason County Board of Commissioners at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 11.
The results of Connecting Mason County’s survey can be seen on its Facebook page. A similar survey for Manistee County can be found on Facebook at Connecting Manistee County.