Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

One-Quarter of Detroit Residents Don’t Have Internet Access

The problem is not just with access to broadband, but also reliability. Still, the city has been making progress, cutting the number of Detroiters without access from nearly 40 percent in 2016 to 25 percent today.

(TNS) — When Amariah Wims-Fuller lost her internet access last year, she raced to notify teachers to prevent them from marking her absent.

"I was just mainly focusing on notifying my teachers of the problem going on so I wouldn't be marked absent," Wims-Fuller said. "I would ask my mother to message them and tell them that the WiFi was moving a little bit slow."

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a new light on the long-standing problem of the digital divide in Detroit, the gap between those who can afford reliable access to high-speed internet and updated hardware, and those who cannot. Government and nonprofits have stepped in to provide some emergency help to try to bridge the divide. But experts and residents say much more is needed to live, work and play online for the long haul.

Luckily for Wims-Fuller and others, the city of Detroit in June announced a program led by Human-I-T, a nonprofit that collects used laptops, smartphones, tablets and other technology to distribute to families as a way to keep devices out of landfills. Wims-Fuller received a refurbished laptop as part of the program.

Officials admit that the city needs to do more to get out the word about the benefits of the program and boost participation. That could be a key factor in the city's ability to get more funding to similar kinds of initiatives.

Signs of Progress



Comcast will provide $25,000 for digital literacy training and 500 laptops this year for low-income Detroiters as part of a $1 billion nationwide program to bridge the digital gap. In past years, other public and private organizations have handed out more than 70,000 electronic devices to those in need, according to Joshua Edmonds, Detroit's digital inclusion director.

Today, there is also a stipend available to help Detroit residents reduce their internet bill, but officials say they are concerned because the subsidies do not include obtaining updated computer hardware.

Edmonds said the root of the problem remains the inability of the majority to have affordable, high quality internet access to complete increasingly essential tasks offered online.

"A digitally inclusive household in Detroit has an appropriate device for residents, an appropriate internet connection and technical support responsive to them," Edmonds said. He added that an idea of creating physical technical support hubs across neighborhoods will allow the city to "support residents even more," whether they need help navigating tasks such as creating online accounts or using social media.

In the last decade, the city of Detroit has seen some progress in closing the gap. About 25 percent of Detroiters are still without internet access, but that's an improvement from 39 percent in 2016, according to the census.

But city officials today argue the digital divide must be viewed more broadly. It should include those who cannot afford updated devices and account for those who struggle with old technology or do not have the skills to navigate up-to-date features.

"It's about affordability here," Edmonds said. "If we are not getting at the root cause of people in poverty here, then all we're doing is putting on a Band-aid."

More Than A Handout



Experts in closing the digital divide say it's more than just handing out the latest smartphone or tablet.

"You can't give a few people laptops and expect the whole system to get better," said Mike Stern, Michigan State University professor who studies digital inequality.

Stern said the world will continue to rely on remote access to the internet and those without reliable, affordable means will be left behind. Many parts of the digital divide went largely unnoticed until the COVID-19 pandemic forced many tasks connected to work, school and medical appointments to shift online, he added.

"There's a real educational component to this," Stern said. "We've seen some laptop distribution and things like that but if you bring those things home and you don't know how to use them, they don't do you any good."

Some cities have made substantial progress, researchers say. Chicago Connected, a $50 million initiative to expand broadband access, uses a variety of public and private funding sources to bolster high-speed internet access to Chicago Public Schools students and their families.

Federal dollars such as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act will help increase broadband funding in Detroit using nearly $50 million to provide access to devices, internet and tech support. The federal infrastructure bill would also provide $65 billion to states for high-speed internet.

Affordability is what put Myleka Collins and her family in a bind. The 34-year-old mother of five children was paying $150 to $170 a month for an internet package. The cost strained the family's resources, especially after Collins lost her job.

During moments when it cut out, Collins said the high-speed internet at the library became her "best friend" in helping her children complete their schoolwork and assignments for her own part-time schooling.

"I found myself there plenty of times printing pictures or using their internet connectivity to try to finish up their projects," Collins said.

Through Brilliant Detroit, a childhood readiness and development program, Collins learned how she could manage better at home by tapping federal subsidies. Since July, Collins' family has been able to stay connected at a more manageable cost.

"The discounts for the internet not only helps with the bills for the family, but it helps the children and the adults connect socially. A lot of people are now starting to complete their doctor's visits through telehealth ... it helps with job searching," Collins said.

Detroiters can call the the city's call center at 313-241-7618 if they need the subsidy for their internet bills. However, it's not a permanent grant. Edmonds said he expects grants to last through early 2022 but the American Rescue Plan Act funds may help address other issues, such as providing devices, internet access and digital training, particularly for seniors.

Since launching in June, 45,000 households have been receiving the grant but Edmonds expects to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. In previous years, organizations provided digital literacy skills workshops for Detroiters but it wasn't until this year when ample dollars were funneled to provide more access.

The city also remains fertile ground for innovation and partnership with higher education and philanthropy. Last month, the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation awarded $300,000 to a University of Michigan team to train local residents and U-M students to provide one-on-one technology support to Detroit entrepreneurs.

When Data Doesn't Save



For 9-year-old Nyla Collins, Myleka's daughter, the internet is one of her primary sources for communicating with friends, doing homework and playing Roblox, especially during the pandemic.

"When I was playing Roblox, I disconnected from a game while I was building my house and the data didn't save," Collins said, adding it makes her "mad" when she loses the connection.

Andre'a and Andria Garwood, twin sisters who were the valedictorian and salutatorian at Mumford High School and are now studying at Wayne State University. The two believe it's essential to have every Detroiter able to log in no matter one's ability to pay.

"It's just a way of life. You need computers for everything, to turn in assignments, GPS location, meeting people, especially through the pandemic, computers are so important," said Andre'a, 18. "People that don't have internet and computers, it's not fair because everybody should have a computer."

The two said they were given laptops and WiFi access through the school system to learn online throughout the pandemic.

"I really think it should be free. Imagine we didn't have internet? What would we do?" said Andria, 18.

Devin Waugh, another recipient of the city's laptop donation, said his dream is to play basketball for the University of Michigan and become an aerospace engineer. He said he was blessed to have internet and technology throughout his life and is grateful for the city's gift of a free laptop.

"It's kind of like having a basketball without a rim. You can't really play basketball unless you have the rim. So with the laptop, it's really cool if you have a laptop, but you also need the WiFi as well," Waugh, 18, said.

Although she's years away from college, Wims-Fuller said she plans to attend Harvard or Howard University, drawing inspiration from Vice President Kamala Harris.

"I always push through to succeed and excel. It is really important, because with the technology, the WiFi and the computer access, it has helped me achieve my goals of wanting to go to all the schools that I want and helped me become better succeeding at what I do," Wims-Fuller said. "I literally was born into the internet."

©2021 www.freep.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?