In today’s world, having reliable access to the internet is crucial. From shopping for necessities to medical appointments and education, being online has made life during a pandemic accessible. With this truth only intensifying, what happens when there are barriers to internet access for individuals in need? Two Upper Peninsula Community Action Agency’s found that this issue affected many families and individuals they serve. With assistance from the Northern Michigan Center for Rural Health and Northern Michigan University’s Education Access Network, Community Action Alger-Marquette and Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action Agency were able to bring reliable internet access to community members in need via the Digital Divide program. 

CAAM and GOCAA are local private nonprofit organizations that carry out the Community Action Program, founded by the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act. Their shared mission is to support community members by improving their quality of life and reducing hardships. Through initiatives of community nutrition, early childhood education, and housing and utilities, these U.P. agencies empower individuals and help build resiliency.

Michelle LaJoie, Executive Director of CAAM, is born-and-raised in the Upper Peninsula and has been with the agency since 1991. She said she could not imagine doing anything else.

“I started as the receptionist. We were able to make an impact on the lives of community members. It wasn’t just a Band-Aid over a situation –– we created senior housing, we created supportive housing and homeownership programs that didn’t exist,” LaJoie said. “For me to go forward as the Executive Director, I have to say I was fortunate. I could not see myself doing anything else other than working in the nonprofit world.”

LaJoie said it’s important that CAAM can offer programs to anyone, regardless of their income, although the funding source does put a limit on certain aspects.

During the beginning stages of the current pandemic, people with computers and broadband internet connection could transition swiftly to a shelter-in-place lifestyle. LaJoie pointed out that in Michigan, low-income communities had a higher number of COVID-19 positive cases. Many of these families lacked the resources to embrace the newfound reliance on digital infrastructure and connectivity. With funding support from the CARES Act, Michigan Community Action Agencies jumped into action via the Digital Divide program. The program's objective is to provide connectivity to those who need to shelter in place, with the expected outcome of providing eligible families with devices and internet connection to improve access to education, resources and telehealth services.

LaJoie recognized Northern Michigan 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.

While brainstorming ways to tackle the program in the Upper Peninsula, Bur and LaJoie were creative in developing a program in partnership with NMU. The idea centered around leveraging the University’s Educational Access Network.

NMU Laptop StickersNMU’s EAN is a best-effort LTE service without data caps or rate-limiting. It provides students, their families and community members with high-speed broadband that enables wide-ranging educational and e-commerce opportunities in many of the U.P.’s most rural regions. Bur wondered if there was a way to utilize this service to help CAA clients gain access to essential technology.

Eric Smith, NMU’s Director of Broadcast & Audio-Visual Services, and Chris Lewis, Senior Director of EAN Application Development & Support Services, are the University contacts working directly with Bur and LaJoie. Jointly, they mapped areas where CAA service was required and selected equipment that would access the EAN and public, commercial networks to obtain the largest possible footprint.

Community Action Alger-Marquette designed an access plan for their clients using the EAN through the partnership with NMU. Knowing that the Northern Michigan Center for Rural Health’s work stretches throughout all 15 counties in the U.P., LaJoie connected Bur with other CAA directors throughout the region. Gogebic-Ontonagon Community Action jumped on board for the partnership.

Through an agreement with NMU, both agencies supply iPads and LTE broadband internet service to their clients. The iPads include management tools that permit end-users to request and receive remote diagnostics services from the University. This advanced support makes it easier for CAA clients to solve technical issues, even if they’ve never owned an internet-enabled device.

“This is a pilot program, and our goal is to do something great,” Lewis said. “We set the same expectations for this program as we do for the technology services here on NMU’s campus –– we want to under-promise and over-deliver. It’s essential to us that we get this right, making sure everything is working properly.”

Both CAAM and GOCAA were able to pay for 12 months of best LTE internet access for their clients. This program opens doors for not only telehealth and educational use, but social use as well.  Many senior CAA clients are isolated, and the internet is their only way to connect with family and friends.

The service is also targeting Head Start families needing affordable internet. While many children have access from their schools, it is not available to their parents. The iPads and internet access open up the ability to order essential items online, attend telehealth appointments, or attend online classes.

Currently, the GOCAA’s allotment of iPads has been delivered and is now online. At press time, NMU EAN and CAAM were still working on a distribution plan for their technology. For NMU EAN services, this partnership is an example of their commitment to using 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,” Smith said. “To the University, that means finding creative ways to deliver public broadband through agencies like establishing a partnership with U.P. Community Action Agencies.”

For two U.P. CAAs, this broadband program provides critical internet service to community members in their region. Additionally, the hope is this will lead to developing additional future partnerships with the University and the Northern Michigan Center for Rural Health.

“It 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.”


The Northern Michigan Center for Rural Health seeks to improve the health and well-being of Upper Peninsula residents and communities by developing collaborative partnerships that enhance the access and availability of affordable, quality healthcare services. For questions or comments pertaining to this story, contact