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This story is more than a year old. It was originally published by Detour Detroit prior to its merger with Outlier Media in March 2022.
More than a quarter of Detroiters have no internet access — not on home computers, not on laptops, not on cell phones. The city’s new digital equity czar wants to change that with a formidable goal — to get almost all Detroit households online in the next five years.
Joshua Edmonds became Detroit’s first director of digital inclusion in April, after working on similar efforts at the Cleveland Foundation. Ambitious plans seem like part of his MO. Case in point, Edmonds decided to organize this Monday’s digital inclusion summit with three weeks notice — and surprised his colleagues when it came together, and subsequently sold out. Edmonds brought together digital literacy trainers, tech entrepreneurs, funders, community organizations and others tackling the issue to a half-day series of panels at TechTown. (Editor’s note: Detour Media LLC is a coworking member of TechTown; TechTown Inc. is our fiscal sponsor. )
The summit came during National Digital Inclusion Week, and on the heels of the release of 2018 American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census, which showed that 25.4% of Detroit households had no internet access last year. When the National Digital Inclusion Alliance ranked cities with over 50,000 residents using the 2017 ACS data, Detroit had the fourth highest rate of no internet access.
“I want to walk back the figure five [percentage points] every year,” Edmonds first told Detour, which would make the disconnected rate close to 0% by 2024. “That is massive, I’m well aware of that, but that’s where we should be setting our goals. I think sometimes whenever we set our goals, at cities throughout America, we’re trying to set goals that seem easily obtainable, but I don’t think we’re giving our residents and our organizations enough credit.”
The national rate of no household internet access is 12%. In Detroit, 19% of households only had access to the internet through their cellular data plans, creating what Michigan State University researchers last year called a troubling “mobile-only divide” that “may be holding Detroiters back” with unreliable internet access and less “productive” internet uses like homework or job searches.
No access to internet is a pressing issue partially created by, and fueling, the city’s high poverty and unemployment rates. It leads to unsurmountable barriers, from students struggling to do their homework to job seekers unable to find and fill out online applications. Internet access is necessary or makes things far easier for navigating personal finances, transit, health and in so many other realms of normal life that you take for granted when you have it. (Here’s a map of internet access in Detroit.)
Edmonds is also a digital inclusion fellow with the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative. He said he’s in the process of “developing and implementing the sustainable digital inclusion strategy” for Detroit, a yet-to-be-announced project he’s dubbed Connect 313, with an emphasis on the “sustainable” part — i.e., funding. In one panel Monday, organizers of the Connect Your Community project described their success in training several thousand Detroiters in digital literacy and giving out 1,700 donated computers several years ago — but the program ended when the funding did.
Funding is only one of the challenges Edmonds and others face to getting Detroiters online. Comcast and AT&T offer $10 and $5 monthly plans and for qualifying low-income households and have expanded access (the latter provider has also been accused of “digital redlining” in metro Detroit). But awareness of the low-cost programs is still low, said Edmonds. They also offer slower speeds and people are wary of the offers. (After years of hard sells with short-term, low-rate promotions, this may seem like the service providers’ own fault.)
According to Edmonds, digital inclusion is usually talked about like a three-legged stool: internet, devices and digital literacy. He sees the missing piece as the “seat,” or advocacy and awareness, and describes the city’s role as connecting disparate partners, as well as giving people opportunities for peer learning and to form relationships.
“[The city] might not necessarily have all the resources in the world to do A to Z,” he said. “However, what we can do is we can convene people…. We can have folks like myself who are very astute when it comes to the digital divide, advising people on how they can get involved. Things like that have historically been missed within the city.”
He added that the city-branded platform could also help access national funders and work on legislative coordination. The details of Connect 313 are still being worked out, with more formal plans likely to be rolled out soon.
“This is a citywide effort and we’re not in the position to really leave anyone out of the equation,” Edmonds said. “So I’ve been telling people, ‘get in where you fit in.'”