When Lon Nordeen moved to rural Michigan 15 years ago, he knew the pace of daily life would slow down a bit. But over the years, that's meant internet service has been sluggish as well.
Nordeen lives in Freedom Township, Michigan. The last census put the population here at 1,497.
It's one of the many communities so small that no major company will bring high-speed internet to the area, making Nordeen among the estimated 42 million people in this country who don't have access to high-speed broadband.
"People need to work from rural spots," he told Scripps News. "Otherwise you're left out."
But that all changed last week. Not because one company decided to do something — but one man named Jared Mauch.
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Long before the pandemic, Mauch was already working from home in Washtenaw County, Michigan. But his internet could barely keep up.
Mauch was quoted $50,000 to expand high-speed internet to his rural home. Instead of paying up, he decided to pay it forward to his town by creating his own fiber internet service provider.
"This is worth it," he said. "We deserve to have the same level of access as someone in the big city."
Last year, Mauch's company had connected about 30 homes to the internet. That number has now swelled to 400.
Customers only pay about $200 to have fiber cables run to their homes and then $79 a month for service. Mauch uses already existing right-of-way paths along county roads to lay miles of fiber optic cables instead of using telephone poles, which are often owned by larger companies.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it would be awarding hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and grants to boost rural connectivity. Mauch has been able to leverage some federal grants in the past and is hoping to do the same moving forward.
"One of the things I appreciate is meeting people in the community," Mauch said. "But [also] seeing the look on their faces when they go from a satellite connection — and can't load their email — to then see their email load instantly."
At a time when tens of millions of Americans still lack access to high-speed internet, smaller, independent internet service providers are helping bridge the digital divide. And in many cases, the impact can be life-changing.
"I've had a couple of people tell me they can take full-time employment," Mauch added. "They're getting jobs they didn't have access to before."
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