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.
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.
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.”