In efforts to achieve digital justice for the Detroit community, a grassroots movement that brings together Detroit Community Technology Project and the Open Technology Institute is enabling Detroiters that lack access to internet to build their own wireless technology mesh networks. The project – better known as the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) – teaches Detroit residents to build autonomous, affordable and high speed WiFi networks that include internet and intranet.

The Equitable Internet Initiative, which kicked off in July 2016, is installing high-speed internet in three underserved neighborhoods in Detroit – the Southeast, Southwest, and North End neighborhoods, all of which are low-income neighborhoods with lower educational levels than the city’s Greater Downtown Area. The project aims to increase access to internet by distributing shared Gigabit Internet connections and to increase internet adoption through a Digital Stewards training program that equips residents in those neighborhoods with the required skills to put their communities online. The project also offers intermediate and advanced digital literacy training programs to pave the way for youth to gain entry into Detroit’s Innovation District.

The movement includes partners with existing community technology programs in each neighborhood, such as the community makerspace Allied Media Projects (AMP), youth-run technology collective Grace in Action Collectives, community radio station WNUC Community Radio – which focuses on story-telling and journalism, and the Church of the Messiah’s Boulevard Harambee Program. The Equitable Internet Initiative aims to build the capacity of community anchor organizations, allowing them to respond to the changing digital landscape in Detroit.

Diana Nucera, Director at the Detroit Community Technology Project, explains that Detroit is one of the top five least connected cities in the U.S. According to her, because of foreclosure rates and bad credit, a lot of internet companies simply aren’t offering their services to almost 50 percent of the city’s residents, deepening inequality in the city.

According to a report by the Federal Communications Commission, 39.9 percent of Detroit’s population (the equivalent of 100,000 households) does not have access to any kind of internet. The same report goes on to note that 70 percent of school-aged children do not have access to internet at home and that almost 57% of households do not have any hardline, fixed access.

The Equitable Internet Initiative gives priority to residents who cannot afford internet or receive federal support as well as to students. The initiative, which began in June 2016, has engaged digital stewards in each neighborhood who, following a 20-week-long training program, have been responsible for spreading the initiative, teaching digital literacy to their respective communities, and installing routers and pulling fiber.

Equitable Internet InItiative training program

Equitable Internet InItiative training program. Courtesy of Muna Danish, EII.

Detroiters that don’t have access to internet are not just disconnected because of the high cost of internet, but also because of the lack of infrastructure. According to Nucera, the city is equipped with dark fiber optic cable that lies idle in the ground, disconnected from homes and businesses.

Once the heart of the America’s automobile industry and the fourth largest city in the U.S., Detroit fell on hard times in the second half of the Twentieth Century, as automobile-makers took their business elsewhere and rapid restructuring and suburbanization resulted in the decline of the city. In 2012, half of the city’s streetlights were out, the city faced widespread blight and crime as well as water shortages. Today, Detroit suffers from stark inequality, which is reflected in everything from its housing crisis to average commute times. And while innovative solutions like tiny homes are being posed to address the city’s housing challenge, little has been done to address the digital divide.