July 29, 2022
Detroit City Council began formal hearings early this month on allocating $11.1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds toward a pilot broadband internet project for telecommunication infrastructure in the Hope Village neighborhood.
As we evolve into a vastly more digital world, everyday life has become increasingly dependent on access to the internet and all its conveniences. After experiencing a 45-day long internet outage last September, residents of Hope Village know all too well the devastating impact of being stranded offline.
“They called it the great blackout,” said Jeffrey Jones, lifelong resident of Hope Village. “That was tremendous during the pandemic and the people living out here didn’t have internet for two months, at 45 days, and you know, at the beginning of the school year no less. We were suffering.”
Beginning last September through mid-November, the community was struck with an internet outage due to infrastructure in need of repair. Internet Service Providers such as AT&T had and continue to dispatch crews to repair the facilities, but residents say internet access is still unstable.
“We were blown back to the 19th century,” said Jones. “And I still don’t have internet right now, even though they are out there fixing things.”
Residents’ lives were disrupted, adding a further strain on the isolation stresses due to COVID.
“It was harmful because you have a community that has some rich and a lot of poor people that were just living check to check,” said Jones.
“If you’re a single mom trying to create some stability for your children and you don’t have internet, so you have to be creative. Every day we’re gonna walk past McDonald’s and sit on the curb so we can sign on for the free Wi-Fi and the kids can check into their school as present. If the child is marked as absent, you could lose your check also because you are now truant. It’s stuff like that that makes access to the internet so real.”
Jones said for people with means that mainly use the internet for entertainment, it’s a different impact. But for many, it’s vital to survive and thrive.
“The internet is needed,” he said, “Just like light, water, and gas.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, Americans witnessed a hyper-accelerated transition to a virtual world. The social distancing protocol ushered in this change, from classroom and professional meetings switching to remote platforms such as Zoom, a spike in online dating and community gatherings, and grocery and retail shoppers opting for curbside pickup or delivery.
Hope Village residents struggled to keep up with the virtual demands of school and work. Physical and mental health needs were also hindered, including telehealth appointments, pharmacy prescription updates, and social connections to friends and family.
Jones is employed in workforce development and said he has clients experiencing hardship in the “tech-driven” job market because of the lack of reliable access to internet.
He said the neighborhood’s large senior community was the worst impacted due to their reliance on landline phones, which were cut off due to the internet outage.
He recalled a recent incident where an elderly woman passed away and it was weeks before a friend was able to walk over and do a wellness check.
A simple phone call, said Jones, could have prevented this tragedy.
After repeated calls to city officials and internet service providers to express his community’s frustration, Jones finally heard back from Detroit’s Office of Digital Inclusion with a tangible response to mobilize assistance.
The City’s Response: $11.1 million fiber optics internet investment in Hope Village
In a press release, the city’s Digital Inclusion Office said, “Using federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, the pilot project will take place in the Hope Village neighborhood on the city’s west side, which experienced a 45-day internet outage during the pandemic. Work will begin as early as next month and is expected to be completed by 2023.”
The construction of the telecommunication facilities is projected to be an 18-month process and open to all 5,700 residents that wish to opt in and participate.
Typical internet plans can cost upwards of $70, presenting a challenge to low-income families.
When asked about how the plan will be cost-effective, Edmonds said the city is mirroring the largescale fiber optics infrastructure modeled in Ammon, Idaho. The model sets up competition between several internet service providers, incentivizing a lower cost for consumers.
The fiber optics installed is also expected to have a 50-year lifespan, providing long lasting, fast, reliable and affordable internet for residents.
Edmonds said his team is expecting to work through a few challenges with the roll out. One directive is to craft a messaging campaign that is accessible and appealing to the needs of Hope Village’s high concentration of seniors.
“I’ve heard from people that say they are not technical people,” said Edmond, “But I need people to be technical because society is technical.”
Detroit’s expanding digital age
The project is part of the city’s goal to close the digital divide by leveraging the initiative in Hope Village as a pilot demonstration plan toward citywide open access internet. A coalition of collaborative stakeholders is engaged in supporting Detroit’s digital divide being eradicated, including citywide, data-driven digital inclusion organization, Connect 313 and community nonprofit, Hope Village Revitalization.
“Mayor Mike Duggan has given us a mandate to address the city’s digital divide and this pilot project is an important first step toward our goal of building an affordable and reliable digital infrastructure that is accessible to every Detroiter,” said Joshua Edmonds, Detroit’s director of Digital Inclusion, in a press release.
Community partner Connect 313 recommended the idea for an automated open access network as part of a city-wide, data-driven inclusion strategy. Start-up funding for initial research, engineering and network design was provided by the Rocket Community Fund, the Knight Foundation, and Connect Humanities.
On Wednesday, the Digital Inclusion office hosted a pre-bid meeting regarding request for proposals for active construction on the project and, as Edmonds said, “begin getting shovels in the ground this year and really build this out based on our estimates.”
The city is currently working to launch a citywide open access network for Detroiters given the high demand of residents supporting the need for a strategic, city-led approach to bridging the digital divide.
“We are the biggest city attempting this in the country,” said Edmonds. “We are trying to change the status quo because there are those who don’t peg Detroiters as innovative and that can be a battle sometimes. We are working to change that narrative.”
On June 28, a poll of 600 Detroit residents found that 20% of adults do not have internet connection and 1 in 4 report that they cannot get broadband service installed at their residence. The study also reported that 63% of Detroiters without broadband say they would likely choose it if an affordable option were available.
Edmonds said the city is taking the responsibility of building out the necessary planning and infrastructure but it’s up to residents to “raise their hands” and demonstrate a consensus for the citywide internet services.
Jones said he is hopeful the open access internet initiative means the city is moving toward embracing an evolving change toward the future.
“In Detroit,” said Jones, “I think this is one of those things where we are used to doing things the way we always have been for so long. There were folks skeptical about urban farming and now we are known for it. And people were at first skeptical about the Heidelberg Project way back, then it built an artistic flavor. Digital life is just the seed for the beginning to bring us to the 21st century, like our talents with music and engineering.”