Detroiters in the Hope Village neighborhood are cautiously optimistic that a city-led expansion of fiber optic internet infrastructure could bring better service to their homes, but residents want to see the proof first.
Vanessa Taylor was among about 50 Detroiters who attended a Wednesday town hall at Focus: HOPE to learn about a $10 million pilot program aimed at connecting 2,000 homes in her neighborhood to high-speed broadband. Taylor said she deals with outages several times per year – recently she went two weeks without internet – and would welcome a better option, if there is one.
“Over here we get promised a lot of stuff; some comes through and some doesn’t,” Taylor said. “I call us the forgotten area.”
Data from the University of Michigan shows between 42% and 59% of homes in Hope Village have no broadband internet connection. Affordability is a key part of the problem. Residents say they pay anywhere from $60 to $100 per month for internet services and even those who are connected face reliability problems.
Detroit Digital Inclusion Director Joshua Edmonds says the city will provide free installation to a public open access network that will ensure cheaper, faster and more reliable internet. The plan is to lay fiber optic cables in the ground and allow internet providers to use it, modernizing current options of cable, satellite or DSL. Edmonds said this will increase competition between internet companies, which ideally would drive costs down.
“When we say we want an open access capacity, what we mean is that we want to take this same fiber and have different choices and functions lined up for you all to be able to choose what provider works best for you,” Edmonds told the crowd on Wednesday. “Right now, there’s an illusion of choice. You really don’t have a choice.”
An 18-month construction phase is targeted to begin in June. The first Detroiters could be connected by August at a rate of $30 to $40 per month for upload and download speeds of 1 GB per second. FCC data shows Comcast cable internet can match that download speed, but other providers can’t. Edmonds said residents will be able to sign up online to hook up their homes to the service once it’s ready.
“We have an obligation to ensure our residents are fully connected,” Edmonds said.
AT&T customers in Hope Village experienced a 45-day internet blackout last fall, disrupting life in the community for nearly two months. Jeffrey Jones, a lifelong resident and chair of the neighborhood association, said phone lines were down too. It was like being blasted back to the 19th century, he said.
Jones says he can see an AT&T service center from his bedroom window. He passes maintenance vehicles filling up at a corner gas station while taking his daughter to school. Jones said he once pulled over and asked a worker when the internet would come back on, and the employee didn’t even know the neighborhood was having problems.
Jones made dozens of customer service calls. He can still recite the phone number by memory. But weeks dragged on without any resolution. Eventually Jones said he started raising hell with City Hall, and he credits the mayor’s office with pushing AT&T to finally restore service to the neighborhood.
A request to AT&T for more information about the service outage did not receive an immediate response.
Jones is proud to be part of the community, and said he sees the planned investment as a recognition of how hard residents have worked to put a spotlight on their needs. He said the fiber internet plan is validation, at last, after a long period of feeling like the neighborhood didn’t have a voice.
“We’re a modest community but hard-working, diverse by income, and it’s a wonderful place,” Jones said. “I’ve always been a promoter of Hope Village and I’ve always said when we really pay attention to the village, when we turn the knob on our community, it’s got to be the catalyst for all of the neighborhoods north and west of us.”
Debbie Fisher, executive director at HOPE Village Revitalization, a community development corporation focused on the needs of residents, said the city’s plan is the culmination of years of advocacy aimed at changing how Detroit views its responsibility to provide internet in the same way it provides electricity and water.
“I definitely think the city’s forward thinking in this particular area is really important,” Fisher said. “This is something that needs to happen all over the city. To have fiber that internet providers can access through really strong infrastructure, this is exactly what cities should be doing. This is why we have roads, this is why we have water infrastructure all over the city, because somebody a while ago said we need this in order to be part of the future. Just like we need roads, we need internet.”
The concept is appealing to community leaders, but residents are just getting familiar with the plans.
Taylor said Thursday that she came away from the city’s meeting impressed with what she heard but remains skeptical. She talked with neighbors and said they’re taking a wait and see approach. Hope Village has heard promises of infrastructure projects before, Taylor said, and they’re not always seen all the way through. Taylor cited unfinished road construction and the installation of speed humps as two examples.
“I’m interested in getting it at my home, but I’m not going to believe it until it gets done,” Taylor said. “I believe that’s the way everybody else that was there from our area feels, because a lot of projects were supposed to be going on over here and haven’t been done, or they started it and it never got finished and we’re stuck with the remnants of it.”
Taylor’s son is trying to launch a financial advising business from home and needs reliable internet to get it off the ground. Taylor said entrepreneurs in the neighborhood are denied economic opportunity if they can’t get online. She’s lived in her home for 43 years, raised her kids there and even a set of grandchildren. Taylor loves the neighborhood and wants it to succeed.
“It can get back to its beauty, but if you keep just dumping stuff over here and don’t finish it, it’s just a waste of all of our time,” Taylor said.
Hope Village resident Linda Keent Buchanan lives a few houses away from Taylor and said she doesn’t experience outages. Buchanan said she’ll need to see a real demonstration of the speeds promised by city officials if she’s going to change her service.
“What works for me may or may not work for my neighbors,” Buchanan said. “I already have Comcast. They shouldn’t have to prove themselves.”
Wednesday’s meeting also attracted interest from other parts of the city.
Allen Taylor, a Franklin Park resident, said he wants Detroiters to have better access to training so they’re the ones benefiting from jobs created by the infrastructure construction.
The average Detroiter pays $68 per month for home internet, according to the city, adding up to $816 per year.
A draft of the city’s proposal noted Detroit’s goal is to make fiber optic connectivity available to every address in Detroit for $30-$40 a month. The cost to Detroiters, it noted, would include installation, maintenance and operation of the fiber optic system and service fees from internet providers.
Denisessa Watson, who lives on Detroit’s west side, said she worries residents will be asked to cover the cost of fiber infrastructure only for others to benefit when neighborhoods are gentrified.
“We’ve invested enough,” Watson said. “We’ve given enough.”