Due to economic factors, much of Detroit has gone ignored by major telecommunications companies, leaving 40% of the city without any access to internet. As much as 70% of school-aged children do not have internet access at home and are desperately in need of this basic utility, according to the FCC. However, the citizens of Detroit have taken matters into their own hands, and with the help of a coalition of organizations, they have started working together to build their own internet.
The effort began over the summer when the Equitable Internet Initiative, a grassroots movement made up of community members and local non-profits, started training local residents from three neighborhoods to become “digital stewards.” Many of these stewards started out with little to no technical knowledge. Now experts after a 20-week-long training period, these digital stewards are able to install routers, pull fiber, maintain an entire network from end to end, troubleshoot, and even teach others how to do the same.
“We want to make sure that we’re not just installing all the equipment, but also educating the community,” said Rita Ramirez, one of the stewards working on the project in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood, told Motherboard. The trained volunteers will use wireless access points to beam the wifi connection to homes from one of three main wifi hubs: Grace in Action in Southwest Detroit, WNUC 96.7 community radio station in the North End, and Church of the Messiah in Islandview. Each will service approximately 50 homes. The routers will also have a feature allowing all computers on the network access to secure communication via an internal intranet in the event that the internet goes down.
The Equitable Internet Initiative was made possible with the help of Detroit-based cutting-edge internet service provider Rocket Fiber, and according to Model D Media, it was “largely financed by the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a business development organization with foundation support. The project was designed and implemented by the Detroit Community Technology Project, a sponsored project of Allied Media Projects (AMP).”
Because the funding will eventually run out, the volunteer digital stewards will have to work together with anchor organizations to develop business models that will ensure the long-term sustainability of the internet connections, according to Diane Nucera, director of the Detroit Community Technology Project. “These folks will be the ones organizing, building the infrastructure, and teaching others, hopefully to create a culture of collective ownership,” Nucera said.
Digital steward Monique Tate agrees, pointing out that residents are more likely to stay involved if they have a sense of ownership. “Your parents may have given you your first bicycle, but when you buy your own, you had much more appreciation and respect for it,” Tate says. “We need to make people feel like it’s theirs, then they’ll be compelled to want to take care of it.”
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