A Detroit neighborhood is making moves to provide internet and electricity to residents, but they could use some help.
The Detroit Community Technology Project and BLVD Harambee are raising funds to build a mini-park with free wi-fi hotspot and solar-powered charging station in the Islandview neighborhood on the east side. If the campaign raises $5,000 by Nov. 30, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. will match the funds. The crowdfunding effort had raised just shy of $1,000 as of Friday.
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Detroit Community Technology Project Communications and Culture Manager Leon Hister said the fundraiser is part of a decade-long effort to improve internet access and digital literacy in the city. Creating a community station that provides wi-fi and electricity access is vital, Hister said, while Detroit’s Black and brown and low-income neighborhoods disproportionately experience power blackouts and slower internet speeds.
“The digital divide isn’t just about access to the internet,” Hister said. “It’s about a longer history of disinvestment.”
A new report from The Markup, a nonprofit news organization focused on technology, found major internet providers disproportionately offer worse deals to neighborhoods with a higher concentration of low-income and Black residents. An analysis of 1.1 million service offers across the country found customers in neighborhoods that had been historically redlined were offered slower internet speeds at a higher cost than more affluent neighborhoods.
The analysis found 38% of internet offers Detroit households received were for speeds under 25 mbps, below the FCC’s definition of “broadband” internet. The Markup gathered internet offers from AT&T’s, Verizon, EarthLink and CenturyLink to addresses in 38 cities to compare speed and cost with income and race demographics.
BLVD Harambee, a nonprofit created by the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in southeast Detroit, is building a high-speed wireless internet network with speeds of at least 25 mbps. Partner organizations across the city help install hotspots that connect community organizations, businesses and households. The groups also train “digital stewards” who help residents connect to the internet and pass along skills needed to use smartphones and protect their personal information while surfing the web.
“We’re changing our methodology and focus, the initial program was to install 50 homes with free high-speed internet, our boundaries have since expanded,” said Church of the Messiah Pastor Wally Gilbert, who also is a project manager for BLVD Harambee. “We are always chasing funding.”
Gilbert said the focus is to build a sustainable community network. Southfield-based 123NET beams a wireless connection from the top of the Renaissance Center to anchor organizations throughout the city, which then create wireless networks to community hubs and residential homes. There are more than 100 homes connected today, Gilbert said.
Two solar-powered charging stations are up and running in Islandview. Gilbert said they saw heavy use in early September when a high wind storm knocked out power for a full week in some areas. The goal is to add a wireless hotspot to the stations.
“Our residents literally sat in the parking lot in their lawn chairs waiting to charge their cell phones and their laptops, telling us how it was a blessing that they can still charge their phone and communicate with their relatives,” Gilbert said.
Hister said the network will make neighborhoods more resilient to extreme weather events, like a historic flood that rocked the city in July 2021. When the weather gets rough, and the power goes out, community charging stations can help keep Detroiters connected to loved ones and empowered to find resources.
“The church that BLVD Harambe works out of actually flooded last year, and it caused a million dollars worth of damage,” Hister said. “This neighborhood is right against the (Detroit River), and so we’re seeing the impacts of environmental change.”
The Public Spaces Community Places initiative started in 2014 with MEDC providing matching funds of up to $50,000 for community improvement projects throughout the state. MEDC has provided more than $10.7 million in matching grants so far. Since the launch of the program, 328 projects have been successful in reaching their fundraising goal, with $12.3 million raised.
“Having reliable internet access is crucial in today’s world, and this project not only brings this vital resource to the Islandview neighborhood, but it also activates a community space for residents to gather and enjoy,” MEDC Executive Vice President of Economic Development Incentives Michele Wildman said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the City of Detroit committed $45 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to improve internet access and digital literacy training. A March report outlining the city’s strategy states that relying on private industry solutions to address the public needs “has only delayed the development of effective solutions and exacerbated inequalities.”
Detroit aims to build a fiber-optic network throughout the city, starting with a $10 million investment in the west side Hope Village neighborhood. City officials have said that the pilot program will inform the larger plan to give Detroiters more options in choosing their internet service provider.