This town is running an experiment that could help bring internet to millions of people

Thomas Hedger

This town is running an experiment that could help bring internet to millions of people

By Mike Murphy in Sault Ste. Marie, MichiganNovember 20, 2018

“You see that hill over there beyond the tree line? That’s Canada.”

Pointing northwest, Steve Mason leads me and Cory Heigl, his boss at Packerland Communications, a local internet provider in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, into a fenced-off shack. The simple wooden structure, smaller than a one-car garage, holds a few server blades connected to a 200-foot cell tower outside. It doesn’t look like much, but this shack could hold the key to providing the internet to people who’ve never had access before, those cut off from the modern era by geography and economics.

Packerland’s tower is about 10 miles south of Sault Ste. Marie, a town split by the St. Mary’s River, which separates the US from Canada. In town, you’ll likely get a few bars of cell connection. Most buildings have WiFi that can probably load this website. But head a few miles outside of town, and cell and internet service drops to nil. The big providers—Verizon, AT&T, Spectrum—know that when population drops below a certain threshold, it’s not financially viable for them to build out the infrastructure to service the people who live there.

But it’s not as if no one lives here. Outside of town, large farms divide the land, cows graze the cold grass, and pickup trucks dart from pastures to houses on the frigid October day I was in town. Sault Ste. Marie’s population is around 13,600, but the towns just south of it, Bruce Township and Dafter, have respective populations of just 9,236 and 1,250.

In a community center on an otherwise empty road, a local news crew, Packerland employees, a few local businesspeople and their congressman, representative Jack Bergman, and myself convened to drink coffee and discuss what could be a breakthrough in connecting remote areas to the internet.