Digital distress: Affordable Internet an equity issue in Michigan

Julius Coleman, 25, of Detroit, works at the computer lab at the Dominican Literacy Center on the city’s east side. He uses his phone or the lab to get online because, he says, subscribing to Internet access at home is “too expensive.”

Julius Coleman goes to the Dominican Literacy Center on Detroit’s east side where residents learn to read, take GED courses and can connect to the world on the Internet.

Coleman, 25, uses the computer lab at the center to log on to an online program that offers practice in everything from elementary school literacy to college preparatory lessons.

And he can use the computer lab if he wants to get online to pay a bill or access countless government services because, like a majority of Detroit residents, he has no high-speed Internet at his home.

“Too expensive,” said Coleman on a visit to the computer lab this week.

He’s not alone. Detroit residents are grappling with a problem researchers, advocates and government officials call digital inequity or the digital divide.

Not only does the city lag more than 10 percent behind state and national averages in computer ownership, but only about 55 percent of households have Internet, and the vast majority of them can only afford Internet service that is about half as fast as what’s considered high speed.

It’s not just Detroit. Access to broadband increasingly is both a rural and urban problem. In northern Michigan, high-speed Internet simply isn’t available. In cities like Detroit and Muskegon, the price of service puts it out of reach for many residents. And nationwide, almost a quarter of city dwellers aren’t connected to broadband, according to a study this year by Statisa, a market research company.

MORE COVERAGE: Need broadband in Michigan? Rural life can mean you’re out of luck

As a result, researchers are in Detroit studying Internet barriers, community groups have established Internet sharing systems and the city expects to soon make recommendations to address the problem.

“The question is, does Detroit want to be a city where, at least in some neighborhoods, 60 percent are lucky if they can download an online class,” said Maya Wiley, senior vice president for social justice at The New School, a New York-based college that is doing a case study on Detroit.

“Having slow and effective access is better than no access, but we can’t continue to have second- and third-class citizenship when it comes to broadband.”

An issue of equal rights

With society increasingly dependent on online communication and services, Detroit’s connectivity problem limits residents’ ability to do everything from apply for jobs to access basic information about what’s happening in their city.

And teachers in Detroit say there’s a limit to the kind of homework they can assign because most students do not have reliable Internet service at home.

An analysis of Internet connectivity conducted by Broadbandnow.com, which advocates for making high-speed Internet universally available, concluded that Michigan has three cities ranked among the 10 cities in the nation with the slowest broadband Internet connection speeds: Detroit, Muskegon and Ypsilanti.

It’s not that high-speed broadband Internet service is unavailable in Detroit. It is.

The problem is that in the city with the nation’s highest poverty rate among big cities (35.7 percent), too many households in Detroit cannot afford fast Internet service, which can range in cost from $35 to $80 per month.

The problem is considered an equal rights issue by the city. Detroit officials expect to make an announcement in the first quarter of 2018 to recommend ways to help low-income residents get high-speed Internet.

“The lack of access to high-speed internet among many Detroiters is a serious equity issue and one that we are becoming deeply engaged in,” Beth Niblock, the chief information officer for the city of Detroit, wrote in an email.

“We are in the early stages of gathering data from a variety of sources and meeting with community organizations that have been working on this issue already, as well as with private sector partners and educational providers to learn as much as we can.”

In Detroit, most households have a download Internet speed of 6 to 10 megabits per second (mbps), compared to the national standard of 25 mbps, according to 2014 U.S. Census data, the most recent Census information available.

That means, in a typical Detroit household, if a few tablets, computers or smartphones try to access the Internet at the same time, they likely won’t be able to perform simple tasks such as checking email or streaming video, experts said.

Both AT&T and Xfinity, the major internet service providers in Detroit, provide $10-per-month Internet plans for low-income families.

But the less expensive Internet service is slow.

About 14,000 households in Detroit connect to the Internet using Comcast’s program for low-income families. This year, Comcast increased the speeds it offers through the program from 10 mbps to 15 mbps, said Michelle Gilbert, a spokeswoman for Comcast.

But the company can’t make money off offering its highest speeds for $10 per month, Gilbert said.

“(The package) is intended to provide access to low-income families so kids can do homework, people can pay bills and rely on the Internet for everyday things we’ve come to use it for.

“Does that mean you can stream 4k HD? No, but that wasn’t the intention,” she said. “There’s a delicate (price) balancing act we have to play.”

Having no or slow Internet connections will hamstring Detroiters as more governmental services are going online, said Wiley, the researcher at The New School.

In 2020, Americans will be able to fill out U.S. Census forms online in addition to by phone and on paper.

An online Census process could be disastrous for Detroit, Wiley said.  

“If people are not counted, that impacts federal grants that Detroit desperately needs. (The census) is just another way broadband access is deeply impacting us.”

What is high-speed broadband?   

Fixed broadband allows homes or businesses to connect to the Internet through a cable or a fixed wireless signal as opposed to a satellite or cellular link. In Michigan, the biggest Internet companies include AT&T, Xfinity and WOW.

The minimum speed for what’s considered high-speed fixed broadband is 25 megabits per second (mbps) for downloads and 3 mbps for uploads, according to 2015 Federal Communications Commission standards.

In Michigan, nearly all of urban residents have access to broadband, while  900,000 rural residents do not. In some of Michigan’s rural counties, 90 percent of people or more lack access to fixed broadband, compared to 3 percent without access to broadband in urban areas.

Jameson Zimmer, director of content for BroadbandNow.com, said local governments can help ensure better high-speed Internet access for low-income residents by creating incentives for more competition from fiber providers like Google Fiber to set up shop and drive down prices.

“Ultimately, the main problem with Detroit is that it's a ‘duopoly’ system where Xfinity and AT&T are the only realistic options for most people,” Zimmer wrote in an email.

An exception in Detroit is Rocket Fiber, one of Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures companies, that is bringing rocket fast gigabit Internet service to residents and businesses in downtown and Midtown.

“We would love to see more (internet service provider) startups like this, but they are quite rare,” Zimmer wrote.

Cities across the nation are grappling with the digital divide and adopting different strategies such as creating municipal networks.

In 2010, In Chattanooga, Tenn. became the first city to get into the high-speed Internet market, offering 1 gigabit-per-second fiber-optic Internet service. It resulted in an influx of new tech-based firms to the area. The city provided cheaper, faster service than the cable companies did, and now serves about half the area’s Internet customers. More than 450 other municipalities nationwide now offer some form of public Internet service.

The drawback is that, while gigabit fiber optic service is far faster, it is costly. Instead, Detroit may need to figure out a way to attract more broadband companies.

“We need to think about a public option,” Wiley said. “In absence of that, states and cities have to see it as Job One to create affordable access with more franchise agreements ... incentives to bring in more competition with more price points,” she said.

Tiny fixes

In Detroit, community groups and nonprofits have stepped up to fill the gaps, providing low-income residents shared high-speed networks and computer labs.

The Equitable Internet Initiative, which includes groups called the Digital Community Technology Project and Allied Media Projects, is a grassroots effort that is setting up and sharing gigabit Internet wireless connections in three underserved neighborhoods. The projects use antennas on the tops of buildings in the communities to beam out the signals.

The project has been lauded in national media as Detroiters fighting digital inequity by setting up their own Internet access.

On the far east side, on the second Saturday of each a month, the Eastside Community Network has a “bring your own device” workshop that has been attracting mostly older residents who want to learn how to use technology and the Internet, said Suzanne Cleage, the group’s director of neighborhood growth.

But that’s not enough, she said.

Neighbors come to the classes asking to learn how to access social service websites, use Google and log on City of Detroit websites that allow residents to file complaints. But some people can’t afford the Internet connection.

“If it’s a choice between the Internet and groceries, they choose groceries,” Cleage said.

So the group got a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and by next spring expects to open a “tech equity” computer lab.

“Our community is really coming to terms with the fact that everything in our world is connected with a box that has the Internet it in it,” she said. “We have to provide a means.”

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Comments

Mark
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 7:18am

Next we are going to hear that Internet Service is a "Right!" The article states:
"Both AT&T and Xfinity, the major internet service providers in Detroit, provide $10-per-month Internet plans for low-income families. But the less expensive Internet service is slow. " It states that 10MB is too slow. Are you kidding me?! I have ATT 10MB and it is more than sufficient.
When does this non-sense end?

GD
Fri, 12/08/2017 - 6:31pm

Mark got the issue right. At the USD 10 you can do e-mail, ask Mr Google all kinds of questions, and access gov services! Higher speeds are needed only for gaming and watching movies. Not interest in paying for these with my tax dollars.

PAUL WIENER
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 10:02am

No, it won't be the next civil rights issue because most people don't understand technology, how computers or the internet works, how streaming works. and will pay anything for comfort and convenience. The ISPs will be sure to give enough people what they want at an "affordable price" to forestall serious protest or opting out. After all, people today are paying $500. from scalpers for their kids' Xmas toys that retail for $59.

Neil Karl
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 11:22am

In the suburbs there is another problem. I installed AT&T broadband April 1. I only get 25 MPS but pay for 50 MPS. AT&T will not or cannot upgrade the cable from my pedestal to the fiber node less than a mile away.

Mark
Fri, 12/08/2017 - 11:19am

Neil- I share your problem. I have 10 Mbs, but ATT offers now 25 MBS for the same price, but they cant speed it up at my home. Strange. As I said, I don't have issues with 10.

John Anthony La...
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 11:44am

Time was that many homes didn't have access to electricity, but public efforts changed that -- notably the Rural Electrification Administration, since absorbed into the Rural Utilities Service. If private companies won't offer service communities need, maybe we need a similar public program for universal connectivity. I'm fortunate enough to live in Marshall, which is now building a public utility called Marshall FiberNet. I hope we get a lot of company in other Michigan communities soon!

Neil Karl
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 11:47am

The report gives the solution to the problem. Detroit and other cities should setup municipal Internet WiFi networks. Detroit should go to foundations for the money. WiFi is better than wiring the neighborhoods.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 12:01pm

"The problem is considered an equal rights issue by the city. Detroit officials expect to make an announcement in the first quarter of 2018 to recommend ways to help low-income residents get high-speed Internet."

Mrs. Dawsey highlights yet another problem holding back Detroit's recovery; officials attempting to change the narrative by framing Detroiters unwillingness to pay for a service as a "rights" issue.

If history is any indication, the soon-to-be proposed "solution" will somehow involve the government stepping in and subsidizing some aspect of it, all in the name of "fairness".

The thing about history is it tends to be cyclical. "New" ideas are more often than not old ones with a different name slapped upon them to make them easier to peddle .

I'd recommend reading some Frédéric Bastiat if anyone want to see how this will ultimately play out.

https://mises.org/sites/default/files/thelaw.pdf

John N.
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 2:17pm

I agree with Mark. Stop it. Everything is not an "equity issue." I use my phone for internet service, and run a business and my personal life through the same phone. Is it slower than broadband, of course it is. Is it far less expensive than satellite, our only other option, that is also true. Can we stream movies in high definition, no. So what!? Do I not update my apps and programs without hitting the library or a coffee shop with free wifi, yup, that's how it works. This is not being disadvantaged.

Rich
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 2:54pm

Must everything be equal? I have areas in my house where I can not get cell phone service. Does that mean the government should provide me the upgrades necessary to get this service? Some have broadband service that is faster than what others have. Does that mean the government should provide the faster service to everyone? Or maybe, the government should take the faster service away from those who have it so that they become equal to those that have the slow service? How about cars. Some have brand new cars that provide reliable transportation, and if a car breaks down, they have a loaner provided from their dealership or their insurance policy. Others have unreliable "beaters" that provide problematic transportation at best. Should the government step in and equalize what everyone has in the name of equality? As a previous comment said, when does this non-sense end? A recent visit to Cuba, which has been a socialist state since 1959, and where everyone gets the same basic pay as everyone else, no matter if one is a doctor, a forklift driver, or even unemployed, has shown that the people do not like socialism. Those that can have found ways around the system to provide themselves a better income. Their way around the system is to educate themselves, always strive to better themselves, and get the extra money to provide the things in life that we take for granted. Ms. Dawsey might be better off writing about those that have certain things, and explaining to those that do not have what they need to do to achieve a better standard of living.

Beerman
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 8:22pm

A bit more research you need,,, have the Affinity now over 2 years only 10 bucks per month, Free Modem Free Computer, ,, guess what no cable TV and Netflix that streaming all day long and 2 other tablet going strong never slowing down. Just where did you get your information from ....

James Flint
Thu, 12/07/2017 - 8:57pm

Where in our Constitution does it guarantee to the poor, equality in all things achieved by people who have achieved more either in education, property, or finance? We are only guaranteed "equal opportunity" to achieve. Since the War on Poverty led by LBJ, the number of poor has not diminished. When the people refuse to finish high school and to utilize the advantages our country offers, the remaining populace is under no obligation to insure the resulting poor have individual access to the internet. The poor should go to the local library if they can't afford the internet to be brought into their "subsidized" housing, which is another sore point because those that work 40 hours a week in many cases do not reside in as nice housing as provided the poor. Sorry, but we provide enough funds to the "poor" already. By the poor I am not including those on disability or suffering from medical infirmities.

duane
Mon, 12/11/2017 - 6:44pm

Ms. Pratt Dawsey [Bridge], Detroit is the people not the problems, people that succeed need to have their how and why told so others can take their lessons and apply them to their lives. The article opened with the experiences of a young man that is succeeding, I would have learned more about how people are succeeding in Detroit, how there is hope in Detroit, by hearing about the why and how he is succeeding then about Detroit residents need to have high speed internet access provided for them. People know the problems, but hearing how others succeed in spite of those problems is how we change our lives and why we should be looking to others.
I suspect my experiences focus me on the individuals making an extra effort that helps them succeed. The reality is that if you only look for the problems and the failures you only find the problems and reasons why people shouldn’t succeed. If you look for success you can find the how and why people succeed, and when you learn the why and how of success you can help others succeed. A year or so ago there was a Bridge story about a homeless student studying and graduated from EMU, there was enough in that story for others to learn how they can succeed. The young Mr. Coleman that you opened with seems another like story, why do you only see his challenges and not his success? The other part is that what you describe in Detroit is true across all of Michigan, in my relatively small town library has two dozen computer/internet stations and every time I go to the library they are always full. In our town when using the library the user has tech support at hand, someone who helps with online problems and who will help them to find what need. That personal support is extremely valuable. When you see someone going to such a center for access as a barrier, I wonder if you would have listen to the young man’s story and may have heard about the people there that have helped him, his success maybe more about their help than internet access. Thank you for the article and please consider pausing for a moment before starting the next article to wonder if there is someone in the article that other people could learn from if they knew the story, it is about people.
After reading this article and while writing my comments I paused to think about Bridge and what it has meant to me, how I have learn others’ perspectives, how I have rethought my own approaches, how I have thought about how to articulate my perspectives. Thinking is always good for me, but then I thought about Bridge of late and how it seems to have changed, how the articles have a tenor or a focus rather than a catalyst for thinking. And this causes me to hesitate when deciding on a donation and if I don’t donate than I shouldn’t use the service.
I will monitor my comments, to hear what others think for if someone reads and offers their thoughts then they deserve to be listened to and the only way to show you are listening is offer your thoughts in return.
Thank you Bridge for the platform for readers to comment on, good luck in the future, I encourage Bridge staff rather than talk at readers recognize their collective intelligence and try to harness it for innovative ways to addressing issues you find important.

Erwin Haas
Wed, 12/13/2017 - 9:49pm

This has to do with net neutrality; everyone should have equal access and not be able to pay for faster or more data. In the opinion implied in this article that means everyone gets equal dial up service.

After all, why would the ISP be motivated to increase or improve his offerings?