About 15% of U.S. households with school-aged children don’t have a high-speed internet connection, according to a study done by Pew Research.
In Detroit, that number is much higher. As school and work continue online, the digital divide is becoming more obvious in neighborhoods without high-speed internet.
“Even before the pandemic, digital access was a huge challenge in the city of Detroit,” Raquel Castaneda-Lopez, a City Councilwoman in Detroit, said.
“In Southwest Detroit, some people might not have internet,” said Anderson Walworth, the Chief Network Engineer for the Equitable Internet Initiative.
Walworth led a team on to the roof of a building in Southwest Detroit to install internet infrastructure. It will help provide public internet access for everyone in the surrounding community.
“A hotspot install at the Michigan Welcome Center in Southwest Detroit,” Walworth explained.
Why is this necessary, especially on a 95 degree day in the middle of summer?
“It's about 28% of folks that don't have internet access at all in the city of Detroit,” Castaneda-Lipez said. “We can't just assume people have access to the internet, or they have the resources to pay the monthly subscription to buy it from Comcast or wherever.”
Because of COVID-19, many school-aged children have been forced to work and learn online, and that could continue for part of the next school year.
“The coronavirus, most everybody’s working from home. School is from home,” said Norma Heath, a resident of Detroit.
Before October 2019, she did not have a reliable internet connection. Now, a futuristic-looking teepee sits beside her house.
“People pass by and they’re like, what’s that? It’s good to see something different,” she explained.
The solar internet teepee was installed by the Equitable Internet Initiative and it’s partner organizations.
“We pay for it,” Heath explained. “It's a nominal fee, you can afford it.”
It serves nearby neighbors as well.
“Around 50 or more,” Heath said. “Kids over there come over here and sit down and do their homework.”
Whether it’s too expensive or just not available, the Equitable Internet Initiative, or EII, has been working on filling the gaps in internet access for years.
“We prioritize homes that have no access to the internet at all, homes that have a low quality connection,” said Janice Gates, the Director of the Equitable Internet Initiative. “When the pandemic first happened and there was no access to the internet, all of the school children, their access to online learning didn't exist.”
The EII is a partnership with three community organizations in Detroit, and the Detroit Community Technology Project.
“We believe communication is a fundamental human right,” said Katie Hearn, the Director of the Detroit Community Technology Project.
They all work together to get Detroit online. They’ve been doing so for years, all with funding from foundations and individuals.
“It's been an issue, a known issue for a long time, whether you're looking at the schools or at access to gainful employment,” Hearn said. ”The COVID pandemic has shown a really bright light back on the digital divide.”
While more players have come in to address the problem recently, including several fundraising efforts, EII continues doing its work in Detroit’s most under-served neighborhoods.
“The digital divide is much more than a technology issue, it's much more than a policy issue, it really is people at the core,” Hearn explained.
“I think there's a lot more work to do,” Castaneda-Lopez said. “In a way it's pushing us to be more creative about how we address this problem.”