When Amariah Wims-Fuller lost her internet access last year, she raced to notify teachers to prevent them from marking her absent.
“I was just mainly focusing on notifying my teachers of the problem going on so I wouldn’t be marked absent,” Wims-Fuller said. “I would ask my mother to message them and tell them that the WiFi was moving a little bit slow.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a new light on the long-standing problem of the digital divide in Detroit, the gap between those who can afford reliable access to high-speed internet and updated hardware, and those who cannot. Government and nonprofits have stepped in to provide some emergency help to try to bridge the divide. But experts and residents say much more is needed to live, work and play online for the long haul.
Luckily for Wims-Fuller and others, the city of Detroit in June announced a program led by Human-I-T, a nonprofit that collects used laptops, smartphones, tablets and other technology to distribute to families as a way to keep devices out of landfills. Wims-Fuller received a refurbished laptop as part of the program.
Officials admit that the city needs to do more to get out the word about the benefits of the program and boost participation. That could be a key factor in the city’s ability to get more funding to similar kinds of initiatives.
Signs of progress
Comcast will provide $25,000 for digital literacy training and 500 laptops this year for low-income Detroiters as part of a $1 billion nationwide program to bridge the digital gap. In past years, other public and private organizations have handed out more than 70,000 electronic devices to those in need, according to Joshua Edmonds, Detroit’s digital inclusion director.
Today, there is also a stipend available to help Detroit residents reduce their internet bill, but officials say they are concerned because the subsidies do not include obtaining updated computer hardware.
Edmonds said the root of the problem remains the inability of the majority to have affordable, high quality internet access to complete increasingly essential tasks offered online.
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“A digitally inclusive household in Detroit has an appropriate device for residents, an appropriate internet connection and technical support responsive to them,” Edmonds said. He added that an idea of creating physical technical support hubs across neighborhoods will allow the city to “support residents even more,” whether they need help navigating tasks such as creating online accounts or using social media.
In the last decade, the city of Detroit has seen some progress in closing the gap. About 25% of Detroiters are still without internet access, but that’s an improvement from 39% in 2016, according to the census.
But city officials today argue the digital divide must be viewed more broadly. It should include those who cannot afford updated devices and account for those who struggle with old technology or do not have the skills to navigate up-to-date features.
“It’s about affordability here,” Edmonds said. “If we are not getting at the root cause of people in poverty here, then all we’re doing is putting on a Band-aid.”
More than a handout
Experts in closing the digital divide say it’s more than just handing out the latest smartphone or tablet.
“You can’t give a few people laptops and expect the whole system to get better,” said Mike Stern, Michigan State University professor who studies digital inequality.
Stern said the world will continue to rely on remote access to the internet and those without reliable, affordable means will be left behind. Many parts of the digital divide went largely unnoticed until the COVID-19 pandemic forced many tasks connected to work, school and medical appointments to shift online, he added.
“There’s a real educational component to this,” Stern said. “We’ve seen some laptop distribution and things like that but if you bring those things home and you don’t know how to use them, they don’t do you any good.”
Some cities have made substantial progress, researchers say. Chicago Connected, a $50 million initiative to expand broadband access, uses a variety of public and private funding sources to bolster high-speed internet access to Chicago Public Schools students and their families.
Federal dollars such as the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act will help increase broadband funding in Detroit using nearly $50 million to provide access to devices, internet and tech support. The federal infrastructure bill would also provide $65 billion to states for high-speed internet.
Affordability is what put Myleka Collins and her family in a bind. The 34-year-old mother of five children was paying $150 to $170 a month for an internet package. The cost strained the family’s resources, especially after Collins lost her job.
During moments when it cut out, Collins said the high-speed internet at the library became her “best friend” in helping her children complete their schoolwork and assignments for her own part-time schooling.
“I found myself there plenty of times printing pictures or using their internet connectivity to try to finish up their projects,” Collins said.
Through Brilliant Detroit, a childhood readiness and development program, Collins learned how she could manage better at home by tapping federal subsidies. Since July, Collins’ family has been able to stay connected at a more manageable cost.
“The discounts for the internet not only helps with the bills for the family, but it helps the children and the adults connect socially. A lot of people are now starting to complete their doctor’s visits through telehealth … it helps with job searching,” Collins said.
Detroiters can call the the city’s call center at 313-241-7618 if they need the subsidy for their internet bills. However, it’s not a permanent grant. Edmonds said he expects grants to last through early 2022 but the American Rescue Plan Act funds may help address other issues, such as providing devices, internet access and digital training, particularly for seniors.
Since launching in June, 45,000 households have been receiving the grant but Edmonds expects to reach 100,000 by the end of the year. In previous years, organizations provided digital literacy skills workshops for Detroiters but it wasn’t until this year when ample dollars were funneled to provide more access.
The city also remains fertile ground for innovation and partnership with higher education and philanthropy. Last month, the Kansas City, Mo.-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation awarded $300,000 to a University of Michigan team to train local residents and U-M students to provide one-on-one technology support to Detroit entrepreneurs.
When data doesn’t save
For 9-year-old Nyla Collins, Myleka’s daughter, the internet is one of her primary sources for communicating with friends, doing homework and playing Roblox, especially during the pandemic.
“When I was playing Roblox, I disconnected from a game while I was building my house and the data didn’t save,” Collins said, adding it makes her “mad” when she loses the connection.
Andre’a and Andria Garwood, twin sisters who were the valedictorian and salutatorian at Mumford High School and are now studying at Wayne State University. The two believe it’s essential to have every Detroiter able to log in no matter one’s ability to pay.
“It’s just a way of life. You need computers for everything, to turn in assignments, GPS location, meeting people, especially through the pandemic, computers are so important,” said Andre’a, 18. “People that don’t have internet and computers, it’s not fair because everybody should have a computer.”
The two said they were given laptops and WiFi access through the school system to learn online throughout the pandemic.
“I really think it should be free. Imagine we didn’t have internet? What would we do?” said Andria, 18.
Devin Waugh, another recipient of the city’s laptop donation, said his dream is to play basketball for the University of Michigan and become an aerospace engineer. He said he was blessed to have internet and technology throughout his life and is grateful for the city’s gift of a free laptop.
“It’s kind of like having a basketball without a rim. You can’t really play basketball unless you have the rim. So with the laptop, it’s really cool if you have a laptop, but you also need the WiFi as well,” Waugh, 18, said.
Although she’s years away from college, Wims-Fuller said she plans to attend Harvard or Howard University, drawing inspiration from Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I always push through to succeed and excel. It is really important, because with the technology, the WiFi and the computer access, it has helped me achieve my goals of wanting to go to all the schools that I want and helped me become better succeeding at what I do,” Wims-Fuller said. “I literally was born into the internet.”
Contact Dana Afana: email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaAfana