Against a backdrop of surging inflation and seething inequality, President Joe Biden’s recent announcement that 48 million households can now get home internet service for free is a welcome respite of good news. The federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), combined with commitments from major broadband providers to lower their prices for low-income customers, means some families in need can now sign up for high-speed internet service at no cost. This one-two punch hands Detroit an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate our digital divide.
But offering internet service for free is one thing; getting eligible families to sign up for it is another. If we hope to succeed, our city officials need to understand that bringing unconnected neighbors online hinges more on building human infrastructure than on building fiber infrastructure.
Keep in mind, over 99% of homes across Detroit already have ultra-fast broadband networks passing by their front doors. But only half of all households actually connect and sign up for home internet service; another 19% get by with just a mobile data plan. Research and real-world experience both underscore that the obstacles keeping nearly half our community from adopting home broadband are a lot more complicated than just the price tag for monthly service.
One-third of adult workers don’t have even basic digital skills. Fifteen percent of households in Detroit don’t have a computer. More than 10,000 Detroiters per year face housing insecurity, not knowing where they’ll lay their heads next month – much less how to transfer internet service if forced to move. Nationwide, these obstacles, and others prompt more than 70% of unconnected adults say they’re not even interested in signing up.
The Affordable Connectivity Program, on its own, won’t cut through these sociological and economic hurdles. It will take a village to tear down decades of digital inequalities and barriers to participation. City officials need to urgently ramp up investments in a city-wide broadband adoption campaign to get every eligible family enrolled in the ACP. When Congress passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, it took an army of Health Care Navigators to help millions of uninsured Americans through the process of gaining coverage. Detroit should launch a similar effort now around the new ACP, training a corps of Digital Navigators to lead outreach and offer one-on-one support to digital newcomers.
Luckily, the foundations for this kind of all-hands-on-deck mobilization are already in place: Mayor Mike Duggan’s Connect 313 initiative is already pulling together public, private, and non-profit stakeholders around the shared goal of expanding digital participation. With the ACP now in place and broadband essentially free for every low-income family city-wide, the Mayor and Council now need to focus efforts in the form of city funding to engage trusted community non-profits, like LA SED in Southwest Detroit, as well as schools, libraries, and churches in an aggressive campaign to make every eligible family aware of the ACP’s life-changing opportunity.
Closing Detroit’s digital divide, means investing in the human infrastructure needed for outreach, education, and one-on-one enrollment support. Let’s stay focused – and get the job done.
Jane C. Garcia is the Board Vice-Chair of Latin Americans for Social & Economic Development (LA SED), nonprofit agency serving Hispanics and residents of Southwest Detroit since 1969.