Academics, policymakers and activists are keeping a close eye on how the ARPA funds are being utilized for high-speed internet.

When Detroiters were asked to weigh in on how the City should spend the nearly $850 million in federal funds it is getting as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), improving access to the Internet was the top “specific issue” that Detroiters wanted to improve. Though the City earmarked $45 million, or about 5% of its ARPA funds, for “bridging the digital dive,” so far, none of that money has been spent. 

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“Keep in mind that it’s now about five months since we even officially got our ARPA plan and funds approved by City Council,” City of Detroit spokesperson John Roach said via text, noting that each contract needs to be approved by City Council, which is currently on recess until January. Just under $40 million in contracts was approved this summer and fall, with the vast majority going to a roof repair program and jobs initiative. The City has until 2024 to spend its share of ARPA funds. 

Though the City has made considerable gains regarding broadband equity in recent years, census data still indicate roughly a quarter of Detroiters lacks internet access. It’s an issue that was amplified during the pandemic, when many jobs and schools went online. And it’s also why academics, policymakers and activists are keeping a close eye on how the ARPA funds are being utilized for high-speed internet. Will these funds create long-lasting structural changes, or merely serve as a Band-Aid?  

“​​As the sense of emergency fades, and the free home internet programs and ad hoc solutions with it, these investments will determine whether COVID drives a permanent increase in access — or just a blip before cutting off communities’ access again,” Richard Murphy, from the Michigan Municipal League, wrote in a July blog post, which came a few months after Detroit received money from the Federal Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). 

In September, the City of Detroit announced that since May, 45,000 Detroiters had gotten help getting broadband via the Emergency Internet Program, which gives out $50 monthly  stipends to help Detroiters pay their internet bill or get access to internet-ready devices. But the program runs through only the end of this year.  

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“The major national telecom companies expect to benefit from windfall investments in broadband, but writing checks to pay for their wires and switches won’t be enough to truly expand internet access: Community leaders must also identify and address the gaps at the household level,” Murphy wrote, stressing the opportunity with ARPA dollars. 

According to an August report on the ARPA funds, the City has two planned pots for digital projects:  “Broadband: Last Mile Projects” and “Broadband: Other Projects.” BridgeDetroit reached out to the City of Detroit to learn more about the planned spending within these two categories, but had not received a response at time of publication.  

Though Detroit has allocated $45 million for broadband, it is not the only digital stakeholder with funds to spend. According to the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s 2021-22 budget, the district has been awarded $791,986,490 in ARPA funds for improving access. 

The district — which had unique challenges when it went remote — was able to give students and families tablets and internet access through a $23 million investment in spring 2020. But that subsidized data period was only until December 2020. According to the Urban Collabatory at the University of Michigan, 70% of school-age children in the city do not have Internet access at home.

“School districts will be essential partners for municipalities in this work, as they were thrust into not just transitioning curriculum online but often in providing devices, connectivity and tech support to their students,” wrote Martin of the Michigan Municipal League. 

Given the shared problem, and a push for larger structural solutions, some point out that the City of Detroit and DPSCD could come together to pool their funds and amplify results. 

“The state, counties, municipalities and other governmental jurisdictions that are receiving federal dollars through the same federal program can coordinate on the implementation of projects that may be important to each governmental entity and leverage the funding they are receiving to maximize project impact,” said Esmat Ishag-Osman, a research associate at the Detroit bureau of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. 

“I am sure DPSCD has just as much of a vested interest as the City of Detroit to increase broadband access. DPSCD and the City could partner up to implement a program that would leverage both of their federal dollars to get even more out of whatever program they come up with. In this way, the City and the district would be able to maximize their goal of providing broadband accessibility because they would have more resources and dollars to do so.” 

BridgeDetroit reached out to DPSCD and the City to find out whether there are plans for collaboration, but those inquiries also were not answered. 

Jean Hardy, an assistant professor of media and Information at Michigan State University, stressed to Martin that any plan for broadband access must consider two things: device access and digital literacy. The former means making sure households have devices that can actually fulfil their needs. A SmartTV or phone, for example, may have internet access, but it is not particularly useful when it comes to doing homework or writing a resume. The latter refers to access to tech support and basic internet knowledge that would help shield someone from identity theft or phishing scams. 

The Detroit Community Technology Project, which started in 2017, works to accomplish this by training digital stewards to work in the community. BridgeDetroit  reached out to see whether the City of Detroit got in touch with regards to ARPA funding, but did not hear back on this either. 

This sentiment is reiterated by the D.C-based think tank the Brookings Institute, which sees ARPA funding as a broadband “downpayment” that the nation needs. According to the organization, municipalities with fundings should first work on getting devices out to individuals and then invest in broadband measurements, including proper mapping of access. 

“Nearly all states and localities face a sweeping set of data gaps: incomplete maps of their network gaps; inaccurate readings on dependable internet speeds; an absence of pricing data; and outdated or inaccurate maps of household and business subscription rates,” explained a June report by senior fellow Adie Tomer and research assistant Caroline George. “These data gaps compound when it comes to digital equity, since accurate data of broadband needs would also help target digital skills services.” 

Though it’s still unclear what the City of Detroit’s game plan is for its broadband agenda, Roach pointed out that the City of Detroit is not just dependent on ARPA funds when considering broadband access. The bipartisan Infrastructure Bill has allocated $65 billion for broadband. The State of Michigan is expected to receive more than $100 million to expand high-speed broadband coverage. 

“The mayor plans to quickly develop a proposal to get as much of that money to Detroit as possible,” Roach said. 

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