Detroit’s Hope Village neighborhood will serve as the testing ground for an ambitious 10-year plan to build a citywide fiber-optic internet network.
The project on the city’s west side is expected to get underway next month and is referenced as part of a 37-page “Digital Access Policy and Strategic Infrastructure Plan” that aims to make affordable digital access available to all Detroiters by 2032 with the use of federal COVID-19 aid.
More than a quarter of the city’s households and 70% of school-age children don’t have home broadband, ranking Detroit among the five least-connected cities in the country.
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The document, which city officials describe as a feasibility study, was crafted to guide the city’s digital access plan. It recommends the city create a fiber-optic would create a fiber-optic infrastructure utility managed by the Department of Digital Inclusion. Essentially, the city would build the physical infrastructure needed to connect homes to the internet. The plan promises a path to lower monthly rates and higher speeds.
The concept is a major shift from typical fiber construction, which usually is built by internet service providers themselves. In this case, Detroit itself isn’t going to provide internet service. It plans to lay the groundwork for private companies to deliver the services to more households. The internet providers can then decide whether to take advantage of the network.
Detroit’s proposed approach has shown success in other countries but hasn’t seen wide adoption in the United States.
“Private internet providers will make decisions based on a quantifiable return on investment related to profit, and in the instance of the municipality, in this case, our profit is public good,” said Joshua Edmonds, Detroit’s director of digital inclusion. “We’re going where the need is great. Most of the time, historically throughout this country, we city governments have kind of taken a step back and allowed people in these private companies to take care of our residents.”
The city’s plan makes clear that private businesses can’t be depended on to fix the problem themselves.
“Relying on private industry solutions to address these critical public needs alone has only delayed the development of effective solutions and exacerbated inequalities,” the plan states. “Solutions to these insidious inequities will require informed public policies coupled with targeted public investments.”
Detroit has identified 380,000 locations that need a fiber internet installation. The city will start with a $10 million investment involving 2,000 homes in Hope Village. An 18-month construction phase is targeted to begin in May. The first Detroiters could be connected by August.
The broadband study document had been posted on the city’s website, but the document was taken down this week after BridgeDetroit requested more information. Corey McIsaac, a spokeswoman for the city, said Thursday that the plan had been posted by mistake, it is not final, and that the details are subject to change.
Edmonds said one difference is that the city intends to back off on a proposed citywide emergency declaration, because it’s not true.
“We have pockets in the city, large pockets I should say, that are connected, where internet is not an issue for them. I’m looking at downtown, parts of Midtown, parts of East English Village, parts of Corktown, parts of Sherwood Forest …,” he said. “However, to say that there is a citywide need for digital equity, that absolutely is true. No matter where someone goes in the city, there shouldn’t be a ZIP code or neighborhood prejudice to fast internet.”
City officials scheduled an April 20 community meeting at Focus: HOPE, 1400 Oakman Blvd., to share details with Detroiters. Edmonds is also asking residents to reach out to him at email@example.com. Another version of the plan will be posted online before the meeting, he added.
“If someone read that (original) plan already and they go to that meeting, they’re not going to be ill-informed,” Edmonds said. “I’d say they’re most likely going to come in, maybe using language that we don’t want to 100% stand behind, but the sentiments are still to the most part accurate. Digital inequity is a very serious concern.”
‘Plagued with unreliability’
The plan notes the city chose to start with Hope Village because it faces significant barriers to affordability, lacks competition, and “is plagued with unreliability.” Data from the University of Michigan shows half of the neighborhood does not have a home broadband connection.
Edmonds said he saw the need in Hope Village after an infrastructure upgrade in the neighborhood last year caused a 45-day internet blackout. Edmonds said he was outraged. The situation, he said, showed how residents are “at the mercy” of service providers who don’t treat all customers equally.
“That 45-day outage doesn’t happen in Farmington Hills, so why does it happen in Detroit?” Edmonds said. “Specifically, why does it happen in Hope Village? I think that is part of a larger, more insidious issue around poverty. That’s all I needed to see.”
Calvin Gordon, a 62-year-old lifelong Detroiter, said he relies on his cell phone to get online.
Gordon’s smartphone lets him keep up to date on news, answer emails and pay bills, but it can’t do everything, he said.
He filed his taxes this year from a computer at the Detroit Public Library’s Parkman branch in the Hope Village neighborhood. He said he treks a mile on foot nearly every day to use the library’s free computer terminals.
The Detroit Public Library is a major resource for residents who need internet access but can’t afford it.
Atiim J. Funchess, assistant director of marketing and communications for the Detroit Public Library, said the library system allows members to rent internet hotspots and laptops. It also has boosted the Wi-Fi signal to extend outside branch locations, allowing Detroiters to connect without coming inside.
Funchess said the mobile hot spots could be rented out for 90 days at a time. The top feedback was it wasn’t long enough. Most people used them to work from home, he said.
“We’re trying to do what we can to help the situation, but at the end of the day it’s going to have to take a city-wide approach.”
Hope Village resident Linda Keent Buchanan, 67, said she’s relatively content with the reliability of her Xfinity cable and home internet bundle. Buchanan remains a longtime customer for $219 a month. Every so often she threatens to leave while haggling for discounts – it usually works.
Buchanan said she would like her internet to be cheaper, wouldn’t everyone. But Xfinity is the only option and she’s skeptical that the city can do better.
Still, she wants to hear more from Detroit about its plan, and hopes officials reach out to the neighborhood before moving forward.
“I would like to test what’s being put in against what I already have before I make a decision to change,” Buchanan said.
Access, affordability and options
Detroiters who do have home connections face high costs and low bandwidth, leaving many to ditch their service and rely solely on cell phones to get online. According to the FCC, most of the city lacks access to fiber-optic internet, the gold standard for reliability and speed.
The result: Detroiters, particularly in marginalized neighborhoods, have few options for a service that has become all but mandatory to navigate daily life. Advocates worry it’s creating unconscionable outcomes for residents and their children.
Pew Research Center surveys nationally found that white adults were more likely to have a broadband connection at home (80%) compared to Black adults (71%) and Hispanic adults (65%). Black and Hispanic adults also rely more on smartphones for internet and digital access.
Edmonds was hired by Detroit in 2019 to spearhead strategies to get more residents connected to high-speed internet and to teach Detroiters technology skills. Early efforts focused on distributing computers, providing training and subsidizing internet bills, but the city now aims to take more aggressive measures.
Detroit’s plan frames open access to the internet as a public good. Frederick said treating internet service as a utility like water or electricity attracted more consideration since the COVID-19 pandemic made access a necessity.
“It is a big stance and I think we’re going to start to see policy start to shift that way,” said Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan. “It takes efforts like this from a city to start being an example before we’re going to see that scale up, but it does seem to indicate that we are moving in that direction.”
Connect Michigan is a nonprofit organization working with state agencies to map the gaps in broadband access across the state. This includes Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s newly created High-Speed Internet Office and task force. The governor’s administration estimates 1.2 million Michiganders don’t have a permanent home broadband connection.
AT&T and Comcast, now known as Xfinity after a rebranding, are the main internet providers in Detroit. Publicly available customer reviews for both reflect complaints about frequent outages, poor customer service and hidden fees.
Affordability, Detroit’s plan notes, is a major part of the problem.
Gordon said he used to be an Xfinity home internet customer but canceled the service when it became too expensive. A bundled internet and cable package ran him $100 per month, and service was unreliable during storms, he said.
Pew Research found 57% of people earning less than $30,000 have home internet, compared to 74% of people earning between $30,000 and $50,000. The average income in Detroit between 2016 and 2020 was under $33,000, according to census data.
The average Detroiter pays $68 per month for home internet, according to the city, adding up to $816 per year.
The city’s goal is to make fiber optic connectivity available to every address in Detroit for $30-$40 a month. The plan shows costs to Detroiters will include installation, maintenance and operation of the fiber optic system and service fees from internet providers.
Timeatria Shaw is a 30-year-old mother of four living in the Hope Village Neighborhood.
She pays Xfinity $90 per month for the internet and said she also benefits from a federal program that covered $30 of her bill. Shaw said internet service should be treated as a housing cost in the same way as electricity and heat.
“Especially when it’s a pandemic and kids have to be out (of school), because not all families have the income to provide for internet,” she said.
The city also intends to develop customer affordability programs like the Water Residential Assistance Program and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department 10/30/50 Payment Plan for those unable to pay their bill.
American Rescue Plan funding, grants and low-interest public bonds could be used to bring installation costs down to $10-$15 per month. People who don’t use the city fiber network won’t pay anything, according to the city’s plan.
With federal funds, the time is now
A federal infrastructure law signed last year includes a program focused on constructing broadband infrastructure and another focused on affordability, digital literacy and providing devices to households.
Michigan was given $250 million in funds for grants to bring broadband infrastructure to unserved areas.
“When you have a mandate by the president to ‘Build Back Better’ and we have an American Rescue Plan allocation, then it’s like, ‘might this be the opportune time and window for us to actually step up and do something that’s actually bold enough to really create that shift?” Edmonds said.
Being designated as an unserved area has major implications for Detroit’s ability to get federal funding. Edmonds said Detroit is considered “underserved” – lacking in options and affordability – but not “unserved” – lacking in access altogether. Edmonds said Detroit’s ability to demonstrate it has a plan could help leverage federal funding coming through the state.
“We’re not approaching the State Legislature nor the federal government saying ‘we have an unsolvable issue,’” Edmonds said. “Rather, we have a solution to one of our big problems. This is how much this costs. I think that shifts the narrative, at least for Detroit.”
State reports dating back to 2009 put more emphasis on the lack of infrastructure in rural communities compared to their urban counterparts. A 2018 report published by the Michigan 21st Century Infrastructure Commission determined that a vast majority of “unserved” households without high-speed broadband are in the Upper Peninsula and rural communities.
Frederick said the dynamic could explain why Detroit is adopting its own plan to address gaps in service.
“When you get down to the ground level or a block level, you’ll start to see gaps in that infrastructure from a lack of investment over time or maintenance over time,” Frederick said.
“There’s going to be an opportunity to be very surgical and precise with how we define those areas,” Frederick said. “I think we’re going to see some of those funds start to go to more urban areas where we’ve assumed up until now that there is service.”
Sarah Tennant, director of cyber initiatives at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, said state officials are prioritizing digital equity in urban areas like Detroit. This includes providing skills training and physical hardware, in addition to access.
“It’s something that we’ve been talking about for as long as we’ve been talking about the internet, but the pandemic really shone a light on the inequities of the folks that didn’t have access,” Tennant said. “There were students that were doing their homework in McDonald’s parking lots, or sitting outside of Starbucks to do their job. We don’t want to have that ever have to happen again in Michigan.”