Reliable internet access is critical in today's world. This has been verified during the pandemic, with at least temporary shifts to virtual education and medical appointments. For two U.P. Community Action Agencies, Alger-Marquette and Gogebic-Ontonagon, the pandemic also revealed some community members they serve confronted barriers to securing internet access when it was needed most. They were able to address the issue with assistance from Northern Michigan University's Center for Rural Health and the NMU Educational Access Network through the Digital Divide program.
Community Action Alger-Marquette (CAAM) and Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action Agency (GOCAA) are local nonprofits whose shared mission is to support community members by improving their quality of life, reducing hardships and building resiliency. ‘
During the beginning stages of the pandemic, those with computers and broadband internet connection could transition swiftly to a shelter-in-place lifestyle. Michelle LaJoie, director of CAAM, said low-income communities in Michigan had a higher number of COVID-19 cases. Many of these families lacked the resources to embrace the newfound reliance on digital infrastructure and connectivity.
With funding from the CARES Act, the state's Community Action Agencies mobilized to help via the Digital Divide program. LaJoie recognized NMU Center for Rural Health's Director Elise Bur as someone who may have ideas on how to proceed with the Digital Divide program.
“Once Michelle explained the concept behind the funding opportunity, my immediate thought was embracing the opportunity for NMU to step up to the plate, connect individuals to broadband service and expand access to care by encouraging people to access their providers using telehealth services,” Bur said.
Bur and LaJoie developed a creative partnership with NMU that centered on leveraging the university's Educational Access Network (EAN), which offers high-speed educational broadbrand across many U.P. rural areas. EAN staff mapped areas where community action agency service was required and selected equipment that would access the EAN and public, commercial networks to obtain the largest possible footprint.
Knowing that the NMU Center for Rural Health covers all 15 U.P. counties, LaJoie connected Bur with other CAA directors throughout the region. Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action Agency also joined the effort.
Through their agreement with NMU, both agencies supply iPads and LTE broadband internet service to their clients. The iPads include management tools that make it easier for CAA clients to receive remote diagnostic support from the university to solve technical issues.
Both CAAM and GOCAA were able to pay for 12 months of LTE internet access for their clients. Beyond telehealth and educational use, the program has social applications. Many senior CAA clients are isolated, and the internet is their only way to connect with family and friends.
The service also targets Head Start families in need of affordable internet. While many children have access from their schools, it is not available to their parents. The iPads and broadband created the ability to order essential items online and attend telehealth appointments or online classes.
The partnership is an example of NMU's commitment to using its Federal Communications Commission-licensed spectrum to help provide affordable broadband in rural Michigan.
“When the commission granted licenses to NMU for our LTE Broadband service, it did so with the understanding that we would provide internet services that serve the public interest,” said Eric Smith, NMU director of broadcast and A/V services. “To the university, that means finding creative ways to deliver public broadband through agencies like establishing a partnership with U.P. Community Action Agencies.”
The partnership to provide critical internet service to community members in need may lead to additional collaborations between U.P. Community Action Agencies, Northern and the NMU Center for Rural Health.
“This has opened doors for us when we are thinking of other aspects of a partnership with Northern Michigan,” LaJoie said. “The university has been very professional in every aspect. By utilizing their service, we're making a daily difference in the lives of our clients.”
Elise Bur can be reached at email@example.com or 227-6356.
Prepared by Sarah O'Neill and Kristi Evans.