SCIO TOWNSHIP, Mich. — It would be easy to assume that the pace of life always moves about as quickly as the wind in rural Washtenaw County, Michigan, where farm fields far outnumber the number of homes here. But that does not mean the folks who live in this community of 17,000 want everything to move quite that slow, including their internet speeds.
As the owners of Hilltop GreenHouse and Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Denise Prielipp and her husband have spent years dealing with painfully slow internet.
“For years, we had a dial-up Mastercard and Visa machine, if you could only imagine. It was running off a phone line,” Prielipp said sitting in her office overlooking the couple’s farm.
In Washtenaw County, not a lot of internet service providers are clamoring to bring high-speed broadband in.
“Because we’re so sparsely populated that it’s not worth them on the bottom line,” Prielipp said.
So, instead, one man decided to take matters into his own two hands. His name is Jared Mauch.
“You’re out here with the cows and cows have good Wi-Fi,” Mauch said.
In his barn, he’s currently storing thousands of feet worth of fiber and conduit cables.
“Before this, I wasn’t really in the construction business,” Mauch admits looking at the massive spools of cable he now owns.
The 46-year-old tech worker is now the foreman of arguably the most critical infrastructure project in his town’s history.
Long before the pandemic, Jared Mauch was already working from home. But his internet could barely keep up. A few years back, he 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 small town by creating his own fiber internet service provider.
“This area is worth it. We deserve to have the same level of access as someone in the big city,” he said.
Along the way, he’s hooked up neighbors and businesses. In the last three years, this rural internet operation has grown from 30 customers to 73, laying 14 miles of cable across the county.
“It’s an investment in myself. It’s an investment in the local community, and I’m glad they’ve given me that trust,” he noted.
At a time when 19 million Americans still lack access to high-speed internet, this kind of grassroots effort is gaining a good deal of attention.
Mauch recently received a $2 million grant from the federal government to help expand his coverage area. Nationwide, many smaller independent Internet Service Providers are bridging the digital divide. There are 1,410 smaller ISPs nationwide connecting folks where companies like Comcast and AT&T won’t go.
With Wi-Fi hot spots now affixed to her greenhouse, Denise Prielipp offers anyone who wants to drive up for a workspace to sit and download or upload files at speeds of more than 1 gig per second. On a recent summer day when the town was without power, anyone who needed to connect to the web was invited to come here and download files among the flowers and herbs.
“Rural America matters. We are voting people. We know what’s going on, and you have to pay attention to us,” Prielipp said.