New initiative addresses digital divide in Metro Detroit with public Wi-Fi hotspots

A new initiative aims to bridge the digital divide in Southeast Michigan by providing internet hotspots and online resources.

 

In Detroit, Inkster, Flint, and Washtenaw County, 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.

 

As part of the initiative, six of the hotspots will be at City of Detroit community centers and nine Detroit Public Libraries will extend their Wi-Fi network outside of their buildings' structures during regular operating hours.

 

Extending the reach of existing internet connections at some of Detroit's "most highly used branches is a good step forward for our citizens," says Atiim J. Funchess, assistant director of marketing at Detroit Public Library.

 

Explaining that access to Wi-Fi was a primary service that many library patrons used prior to COVID-19, Funchess believes that the new initiative will allow people the continued ability to do things like job hunt and stay connected with loved ones and current events.

 

"The library has been on the forefront of trying to bridge this digital divide for a long while now," Funchess says. "During this time period when it's not safe for people to go into places, we're glad for a way to keep things going."

 

For local students, the pandemic laid bare the inequities Detroit children face as schools shut down this past spring. According to the FCC, 40% of households lack internet access of any kind and 70% of school-age children don’t have internet at home.

 

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.

 

Dagg notes that a large number of Detroit-based students are currently using their cellphones 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 cellphone?"

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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

 

Photo courtesy of Toyota Motor North America.