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How Detroit residents are building their own internet

Detroit has historically been one of the least connected cities in America, with about 40 percent of Detroit residents lacking any home internet access at all. Things are changing, though, thanks in large part to projects like the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), a collaboration between the Detroit Community Technology Project and a network of community organizations.

EII has an ambitious goal: to strengthen neighborhoods by building low-cost, high-speed internet for the underserved communities of Detroit, to increase digital literacy, and to train residents to be “digital stewards.” And against all odds, they are succeeding. 

Over the past six years, EII has built and maintained an impressive internet network across large swaths of Detroit, training digital stewards from the community to set up and install wireless access points, fiber hookups and hotspots, and educating residents on how to safely and effectively use the internet.

The onslaught of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns around the country exacerbated an issue that has been pervasive for decades: the digital divide. As many Americans logged into Zoom to conduct business, chat with their family and watch Netflix, millions of others were offline and disconnected, struggling to find information about COVID-19, schedule vaccine appointments and apply for unemployment. This is the digital divide: the gap between those who have digital connectivity, and those who do not. This disparity is especially pronounced in communities of color, as well as low income communities. 

According to Nyasia Valdez, network manager for Grace in Action in Southwest Detroit, one issue behind the digital divide in Detroit is affordability for residents. “In some areas of Southwest, there is only one internet provider, versus in other areas where there are three or four. So if their only option is $100 a month, then that’s what they have to pay.”

The areas that the Equitable Internet Initiative serves are predominantly communities of color, and the digital stewards that EII train and employ come from these communities. “It’s easier to make a community member a technician than a technician a community member,” according to digital steward Shiva Shahmir. 

The stewards help install and maintain EII’s high speed network, which is wireless, point-to-point and provides a 25mbps up and down speed. It utilizes donated connections from 123Net, an enterprise ISP, who beams a gigabit connection from the top of the Renaissance Center, the highest point in Detroit, to the three anchor organization partners: Grace in Action, Church of the Messiah, and North End Woodward Community Coalition. From there, the stewards create wireless distribution networks to community hubs, and then to residential homes. 

Now, EII is working on resilience plans for the future. First are solar charging stations, which are set up around Detroit and provide free, high speed internet access, as well as device-charging. 

EII is also creating portable network kits, which are battery-powered cases that provide wireless signal to a four block radius, and can be used in situations where there is a network outage. 

Finally, EII is developing an intranet, a system for communicating offline and solely via their network. This allows people to communicate privately and offline. “Law enforcement agencies are often asking me, can they become a part of our network,” says the Rev. Wally Gilbert, project manager for EII. “I say no, we guarantee the users of our network privacy, we don’t do any data collection. We want the community to feel safe communicating.” 

“Access to information is like liberty. Whenever that is restricted or limited for the sake of capitalism, it’s so symbolic of oppression because people can’t make up their own minds,” says Shahmir. “When they don’t have that information, can they really make the best decisions for themselves?”

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