Connecting the Unconnected in Detroit
The Equitable Internet Initiative is bringing internet access and digital skills to underserved Detroit neighborhoods
Detroit may be Michigan’s most populous city, but many of its residents still lack high-speed internet — an increasingly vital resource in the 21st century. Indeed, 40 percent of Detroit’s population doesn’t have broadband connectivity.
Diana Nucera is a director with the nonprofit Detroit Community Technology Project, which is sponsored by Allied Media Projects. She explains that the city’s turbulent economic history — bankruptcy, foreclosures, unemployment — has played a big part. “Telecom companies really stayed away from low-income areas,” Nucera says.
A home or business without internet access may be unimaginable to some Americans. But in areas like Southwest Detroit, it’s a matter of course. “Take a moment to imagine a day without the internet, and what you wouldn’t be able to do,” Nucera says. “Then, think about not having the internet for a whole year.”
Daily life — from banking and social services to job hunting and communication with family — becomes exponentially more difficult. “Every system we interact with today has a digital component, from education to governance,” Nucera says.
So when Nucera and her colleagues learned in 2015 that fiber optic connectivity was coming to Detroit, they were surprised: “How can we have gigabit if half the city doesn’t even have internet?” they wondered.
But they were also optimistic: “We started negotiating about a community benefit agreement,” Nucera explained — a way for all residents to benefit from the incoming innovation. In the end, Nucera and her team purchased a wholesale gigabit connection for five years.
And so in the summer of 2016, the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) was born: A part-technical, part-education initiative to bring lightning-fast speeds to Detroit’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
On a technical level, EII relies on wireless point-to-point connections. Internet access provided at a wholesale rate by the ISP Rocket Fiber is beamed to three community organizations across the wider city: Grace in Action, NEWCC, and BLVD Harambee. These organizations in turn provide connectivity to dozens of homes in their respective neighborhoods.
“These three neighborhoods are facing intense economic hardships and environmental injustices,” Nucera explains.
EII also features a robust intranet with multiple in-house apps developed by local youth. These apps can track pollution data in the city’s North End, map community resources, and more.
On an educational level, EII provides a “crash course in wireless engineering,” Nucera says. It draws on Allied Media Projects previous Digital Stewards Training work. Nucera and her team have trained 45 residents from the three neighborhoods. The curriculum spans multiple months and touches on subjects like router mechanics, firewalls, and infrastructure installation. The course also covers community organizing tactics.
“It’s all in the book,” Nucera says, referring to Detroit Community Technology Project’s Teaching Community Technology Handbook, a guide to tech for self determination.
With a recent $60,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and Mozilla, Nucera and team plan to make EII more resilient — to floods, to wind storms, and even to utility shutoffs.
“We will design a solar battery backup system, financial sustainability plans, and emergency preparedness plans for these networks to support their communications resiliency over the long term,” the team says.