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Detroit community organizations installing neighborhood WiFi

Posted at 6:24 PM, Nov 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-17 18:24:53-05

DETROIT (WXYZ) — When it comes to high-speed internet access, Detroit is amongst the worst connected cities in the country.

The lack of investment and inequities became painfully obvious amidst the pandemic when kids and adults were forced to rely on the internet for remote work. Sadly, thousands still lack broadband at a time when it’s no longer optional.

The North End Woodward Community Coalition is one part of the collaborative. The group invited me to that historic north end neighborhood where I saw first-hand the problems but also, the solutions.

The one thing this single mom of four just cannot afford, at an extra $50 a month for internet.

“Rent, water, DTE, gas, getting to and from work, taking my kids to school,” Chelsea Knight said going over her bills.

“That’s just too much but WIFI is so needed you can't do anything without it,” said Knight.

“Is it hard making ends meet?” asked Ameera David.

“Yes, very hard,” said Knight.

Chelsea Knight makes $11.60 an hour in a city where 41% of residents make less than $25,000 a year and a whopping 70% of children live in homes without a wired broadband connection.

Challenges with internet affordability and availability behind what experts have coined the digital divide.

“Digital redlining has been driving the divide for all of these years,” saidReverend Joan Ross, Director of North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC).

Redlining refers to the pattern of installing high-speed internet in wealthier areas while skipping over nearby low-income and minority neighborhoods that were seen as less profitable—AT&T was accused of employing the practice in 2017.

“There was not the investment made to put the fiber in the ground to make those connections,” said Ross.

Out of that reality, the Equitable Internet Initiative was born- a collaborative of Detroit community organizations installing neighborhood-governed community wireless networks- all of it -- to tackle the inequity.

Pivotal to closing that gap are solar charging stations like this one here at Bennett Park- residents can come here, park along the perimeter and get access to the internet from their car for free and look at this, even charge up their devices.

“Cars lined up on every corner around the whole block,” said Changa Parker.

Changa Parker, a digital steward of the initiative, installs the internet in his own north-end community, everything from parks to homes.

“Hit that little button back and it's on,” said Norma Heath.

Neighborhood leaders like Norma Heath are opening their own properties as a Wifi hot spot. In this case, in the front yard. This location, complete with seating. She sees 1800 internet and power connections a month.

“Close it up so you won't get rain or water in there,” said Heath.

But the group, funded by grants, is also transforming individual households, so far, hooking up more than 200 homes of the most vulnerable. Seniors and families with school-aged kids, including the home of Chelsea Knight, leaving community members feeling served.

“My kids do homework online. It's a blessing, it really is a blessing,” said Knight.

“How does it make you feel knowing you are part of the solution?” asked David.

“It makes me feel great, great,” said Heath.

“It makes me extremely proud. Proud of what I'm providing for the community and proud of the results,” said Parker.

The work is far from over. With a new $750,000 grant, the Detroit collaborative will be expanding high-speed internet access in the city’s north end, which will cover parts of Highland Park and Hamtramck.

If you’re interested in learning more or getting involved, contact: Detroit Community Technology Project