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Detroit’s digital divide is leaving nearly half the city offline

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An Equitable Internet Initiative router installed on top of Grace in Action in Southwest Detroit. The signal beams a connection to those in the community most in need. - LEE DEVITO
  • Lee DeVito
  • An Equitable Internet Initiative router installed on top of Grace in Action in Southwest Detroit. The signal beams a connection to those in the community most in need.

On a chilly November evening the neighborhoods of northwest Detroit are quiet — traffic on Grand River Avenue is unusually calm, and the area's residential streets are mostly dark — but the Detroit Public Library's Redford Branch is buzzing. An hour before closing time the building's wraparound parking lot is nearly full; inside, dozens of patrons, men and women of all ages, pore over research or homework and chat softly. Mostly, though, they use the computers: a couple dozen machines positioned prominently in the middle of the facility's large main room. Two rows in the back are reserved for a class, where an instructor, in the final session of a multi-week course, uses a large projector to demonstrate copying and pasting in Microsoft Excel. Behind one screen in another row two teenagers huddle close together, engrossed; behind another a middle-aged woman has laid out stacks of paperwork.

"This is kinda shaky today," LC Bulger, a soft-spoken 53-year-old, says as he tries multiple times to log off. Bulger has sporadic web access through his job working in special education for Detroit Public Schools, but he has no access at home. So tonight, when he needed to process some emails and do other personal work, he came to Redford.

"This is a light night," he says — sometimes when he shows up all of the computers are taken, and he'll go home rather than wait, reasoning that schoolkids and other patrons have needs more pressing than his. "They're really in here because they don't have [online] options," he says, "and the internet nowadays — I really do feel like it's almost a necessity."

By now the disparities of Detroit's comeback are well documented: Despite a feverish economic surge centered downtown, most neighborhoods are still struggling; the city ranks as both America's most impoverished large city and its most violent. But there's another, typically overlooked element to this tale of two cities: internet connectivity.

In a time where equal access to the internet nationally appears under threat — last month President Donald Trump's Federal Communications Commission declared its intention to gut net neutrality — approximately 40 percent of Detroit households remain completely offline, even as slick new providers like the Dan Gilbert-founded Rocket Fiber emerge to keep pace with the city's frenetic development. And for the hundreds of thousands of residents left unconnected, the consequences are stark.

"This is now no longer a problem of lost opportunity — this is a problem of a genuine barrier," says Bill Callahan, director of the nonprofit Connect Your Community. "In many ways you could say the cost of internet is a new poll tax. ... This has now become a civil rights issue."

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Broadband service throughout most of metro Detroit is dominated by two main providers, Comcast and AT&T. Comcast's most basic internet-only plan, through its XFinity subsidiary, starts at $25 monthly for an initial 12 months before jumping up to $50 per month. AT&T's cheapest plan costs $40 a month with a $99 installation fee. Mobile data plans are also available — assuming one has a smartphone to begin with — but tend to be expensive even for limited data: Sprint's data plan offers 10 gigabytes for $35 a month; AT&T's offers only five gigabytes for $50 a month.

After entering agreements with the FCC that the agency sought as conditions of the companies' past merger deals, both AT&T and Comcast now offer discounted broadband plans for qualifying low-income Detroit residents who live in areas where the service is available: AT&T's Access plan costs $10 a month where the connection speed is 5 to 10 megabits per second and $5 a month where the available speed is slower; Comcast's program, Internet Essentials, which the company says currently serves 13,000 low-income Detroit families, costs $10 a month for a 15 Mbps connection and also includes an option for a $150 computer.

Rocket Fiber, originally conceived of by Quicken Loans' employees as a new lightning-fast internet connection for Detroit and backed by Gilbert, launched in early 2015. The company advertises its fiber optic connection as "the fastest internet in the world" — Blu-ray movie downloads that take just seconds for home users, and seamless video conferencing for businesses. The service is currently available for free on the Gilbert-funded QLine and within 300 feet of stations; it's also used by numerous businesses downtown. Residential service is available at $70 per month, though so far the service is limited to downtown and Midtown.

For a number of reasons — unavailable broadband infrastructure, a lack of digital familiarity or interest, or costs that are still prohibitive — a large swath of Detroit's population remains offline: a 2015 report cited by the FCC, relying on Census data, found that 100,000 Detroit households, representing 40 percent of the city's population, had no internet connection of any kind, including mobile. Fifty-seven percent of households had no hardline connection, and 70 percent of the city's school-age children had no internet access at home.

"Detroit's digital divide is among the most extreme in the nation," Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman under President Barack Obama, and FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn wrote the same year after a visit to the Motor City. "The bottom line is this: If you are not connected to the internet in 2015, you cannot participate fully in our economy and our democracy."

The developed world has, in fact, gone almost completely digital: Whereas 15 or so years ago online connectivity and digital fluency may have still been a sort of privilege — it was helpful, but not necessary, for everyday tasks like paying bills or searching for a job — at this point there's a near-consensus it amounts to a basic right in modern life. In 2015, Obama, announcing a new connectivity program, declared "the internet is not a luxury, it is a necessity"; as far back as 2011 the United Nations called access a human right.

"Go into a dollar store," says Callahan. If you're applying for a job, "they want you to go sit at that computer." Imagine applying for college without using the internet, or assessing health care options, or keeping up with local politics. "Every time somebody pushes another important [aspect of daily life] over to the internet, which is happening constantly, there's tens of thousands of people who are being told, 'We don't need you anymore.'"

And while Detroit's digital divide may partly be born of individual economics — lower-income families don't buy service because they can't afford the bills — it's also exacerbated by digital infrastructure that's far worse than other large cities' infrastructures.

"Because of high foreclosure rates, and because of bad credit, a lot of telecom companies don't offer good service within these areas," Diana Nucera, director of the Detroit Community Technology Project, told Vice's Motherboard on the city's internet connectivity. "Or they won't even turn on their fiber. So we have a lot of dark fiber that doesn't have internet running through it throughout the city."

Part of the infrastructure gap, critics say, can be attributed to discrimination. In a practice reminiscent of the 20th-century mortgage redlining that effectively segregated Detroit, comprehensive analysis by Callahan and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which includes 297 affiliates in 37 states, determined that over the past decade AT&T has systematically implemented new Internet technology in wealthier southeast Michigan neighborhoods while neglecting poorer ones — a profit-driven strategy that Callahan says violates non-discrimination laws and amounts to "digital redlining."

Callahan is based in Cleveland. Beginning in late 2015, while trying to help Clevelanders sign up for AT&T's Access program, he realized many inner city residents — exactly the people who would most benefit from the program — couldn't actually connect because the available AT&T infrastructure was too slow to support even the minimum 3 Mbps connection. Nine years earlier, in 2007, AT&T had successfully lobbied the Ohio legislature to pass a law that allowed the company to freely implement its new U-Verse technology.

At the time the company and many public officials dismissed warnings that the law might allow AT&T to effectively cherry-pick wealthier neighborhoods for upgrades, but that's exactly what it did, Callahan says: Alarmed by what appeared to be missing gaps in the coverage, Callahan and his team spent months analyzing the company's technology deployments. In March of this year, Connect Your Community and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance released a bombshell report detailing coverage gaps that corresponded almost perfectly to poorer Census tracts — meaning poor areas were systematically excluded from a major technology upgrade that would have important implications for years.

"These were executive decisions to build somewhere and not build elsewhere," says Callahan. "This could not be clearer that it's discrimination based on the basis of income. It happens also to be on the basis of race. ... I actually was quite shocked the first time I saw it."

In September, the organizations released a similar map of Wayne County. The effect was identical: Suburban areas including the Grosse Pointe communities, Livonia, and Westland were equipped with internet speed of at least 18 Mbps, as were just a few small pockets of Detroit, including the Gold Coast neighborhood. But the vast majority of Detroit, along with Hamtramck, Highland Park, Inkster, and Wayne, did not. "The map for Detroit is every bit as scary as the map for Cleveland," Callahan says.

Later that month Daryl Parks, a Florida-based civil rights attorney who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, filed a complaint with the FCC on behalf of two Detroit residents against AT&T. The service analysis "demonstrates that AT&T withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Detroit neighborhoods with high poverty rates, relegating them to internet access services which are vastly inferior to the services enjoyed by their counterparts nearby in the higher-income Detroit suburbs," the complaint alleges.

The company has pushed back against suggestions of discrimination. AT&T's "commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled," Joan Marsh, the company's external affairs officer, said in a statement following the Detroit complaint, the Dallas Morning News reported. "Investment decisions are based on the cost of deployment and demand for our services."

Still, Callahan emphasizes, "they have never once questioned a fact."

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The Equitable Internet Initiative, including digital steward Dwight Roston, middle, aims to install internet for 50 homes in three different Detroit neighborhoods. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • The Equitable Internet Initiative, including digital steward Dwight Roston, middle, aims to install internet for 50 homes in three different Detroit neighborhoods.

On a visit earlier this year to a home in Islandview, an East Side neighborhood that's among Detroit's poorest, Dwight Roston, equipped with his cables and other gear, found a woman who had bought a brand new computer months earlier but never taken it out of the box. Also home were her college-age daughter and three young boys. The family had never had internet access before; after a couple hours Roston was able to successfully hook up the home. Before he had even walked out the door everyone was happily online: The daughter was on her laptop doing homework, the younger kids were using an older computer to play games, and the mom — with the help of Roston and her kids — was successfully using her new desktop for the first time.

"The thing about Islandview is that people here are used to not having what we need," says Roston. "I know people who have to take the bus in the cold or the snow or the rain to make it to a library." So when someone is finally able to just log in from home, Roston adds, "it's a relief. You don't have to work so hard."

Roston, now 23, grew up in the same neighborhood, in a home that never had internet. At King High School, he says, online opportunities were also rare. Initially inspired to dive into technology by his musical ambition, he began using the equipment — and teaching himself video and music production — at the Church of Messiah's BLVD Harambee Empowerment Center, which includes a popular computer program. "In this particular area," says Wally Gilbert, the program's director, "no, they really don't have anywhere else to do that."

Roston is now a digital steward with the Equitable Internet Initiative, responsible for installing wireless connections for Detroit residents. Since last summer, the EII, part of the Detroit Community Technology Project and done in collaboration with various Detroit nonprofits — the project also uses infrastructure from Rocket Fiber — functions as a grassroots internet service provider: Working in underserved Detroit neighborhoods in the North End, Islandview, and Southwest, project workers actually install their own infrastructure, hooking up antennas to neighborhood buildings and then connecting selected homes for inclusion in the network.

Recipients use their new connectivity in different ways — some are primarily interested in research or entertainment, others are using the web to grow their own small businesses — but the need for connectivity is widely recognized, says Monique Tate, a digital steward who works in the North End. "Everyone realizes it at a practical level," she says. "People get it, and they understand that there's potential."

And organizers also emphasize the need for real speeds. "Our Equitable Internet Initiative can't stop at, 'Everyone needs an internet connection,'" Nucera told Motherboard. "Everyone needs to have a high-speed connection, or else we're going to create a digital class system."

Yet the program's scale is relatively small: In each of the three neighborhoods it serves, the aim is to connect some 50 homes, which are selected based on internet requirements, financial need, and proximity to EII's antennas' range. Other community programs, like BLVD Harambee, can help fill in the gaps, but for many Detroiters the digital landscape remains bleak. The stakes will only get higher: Research shows that the digital transformation, while benefiting so many Americans, is also contributing to more inequality, with low-income people — and even lower-tech metro areas — at a greater risk of being left behind. Getting hooked up is only the beginning: Even once someone gains a connection, the process of fully realizing its potential — learning to incorporate the internet as a regular part of daily communication, work, and entertainment in the way millions already do — can take years.

"An essential part of this is digital literacy," says Tate. "Connection is the key, and it's the essential, like blood in the body. However, what's the purpose of the blood in the body? To be able to make everything else function."


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