New initiatives address Washtenaw County digital divide with public Wi-Fi hotspots, online resources

Two new initiatives are aiming to bridge the digital divide in Southeast Michigan by providing internet hotspots and online resources.

 

In Washtenaw County, Detroit, Inkster, and Flint, a joint effort by the Michigan Moonshot Project, Toyota USA Foundation, and Cisco will expand Wi-Fi access by creating more than 50 public internet hotspots. Merit Network and Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) supported the initiative with in-kind contributions. The hotspots will be located at public buildings such as schools and libraries so people can access the internet from outside the building, in a car or on foot.

 

Ashley Kryscynski, WISD's communications and public relations specialist, says the additional 30 hotspots in Washtenaw County school areas are timely, as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing digital equity issues. She points to research showing that 57% of K-12 students in 15 rural Washtenaw County townships don't have access to high-speed internet in their homes.

 

"Whether that is [due to lack of] access to the actual internet broadband itself, or due to socioeconomics, it's an issue that touches every facet of every single school district across Washtenaw County," Kryscynski says. "We have a lot of students that are left behind because of these inequities."

 

Kryscynski adds that the new initiative will address not only academic needs but mental health and social-emotional ones as well.

 

"We want to make sure that every single student and family in our community has everything that they need to reach their fullest potential. That starts right now with internet access," she says.

 

Pierrette Dagg, Merit Network's director of marketing and communications, says expanded Wi-Fi access is a much-needed step toward helping Detroit's students, who rank lowest statewide in regards to internet access.

 

"The U.S. Census Bureau says there are 82,894 Detroit households without internet, but we think that is a very conservative number," she says.

 

As part of the initiative, nine Detroit Public Libraries will extend their Wi-Fi network outside of their buildings' structures during regular operating hours.

 

Dagg notes that a large number of Detroit-based students are currently using their cell phones to be able to attend school.

 

"We have been able to demonstrate that those students who access the internet for homework on a cell phone perform worse than students who have no internet at all," Dagg says. "Can you imagine trying to fill out a spreadsheet on a small cell phone?"

 

Praveena Ramaswami, a community relations and corporate communications spokesperson for Toyota Motor North America, says the initiative will bring "what is a basic need in my eyes" to more people across Southeast Michigan.

 

"We need to bring more understanding and awareness to our community about this gap," she says. "While we’re used to saying, ‘just Google it,’ that’s working on the assumption that everyone can."

 

Not all of the new Wi-Fi hotspots are active yet. For an up-to-date list of which hotspots are available, visit www.michiganmoonshot.org/communitywifi.

 

A separate initiative in Washtenaw County is called the Digital Connecting Corps. Engage @ EMU is launching the pilot project in partnership with the University of Michigan's Ginsberg Center and with funding from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.

 

"We're working with three senior centers in Ypsi, Chelsea, and Milan to figure out how to create a long-term, sustainable solution to providing digital access and online resources for our older adults," explains Jessica "Decky" Alexander, director of academic engagement programs for Engage @ EMU.

 

While Alexander describes the target population's needs as "complex and nuanced," she says there are some key "surface-level" needs that are particular to seniors. For instance, many older adults lack computers or tablets, but they also don't have high-speed internet. If they do have those things, they don't know how to use important services like Zoom or telehealth platforms.

 

Highlights of the initiative include the upcoming distribution of a comprehensive survey across the affiliated senior centers, and comprehensive training to enable seniors to utilize various online platforms. The development of a hotline for seniors is also a possibility.

 

"It would be staffed by our students at [Eastern Michigan University] and available for any senior needing any kind of digital resource or help navigating something," Alexander says.

 

She also stresses that more people need to recognize that the digital divide isn't just economic, but also age-based.

 

"One of the things we want to do is minimize that divide between generations, so that everyone has equal access to the digital highway," Alexander says.

 

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

 

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor North America.

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