Detroit’s Digital Divide Harms Students, Workforce Participation

(Originally published March 13, 2020, before COVID-19 closed our schools)

If there is one thing that residents in Detroit know, it is that life is not fair. Despite this fact, Detroiters have worked hard for generations with the hope of getting ahead. To get ahead Detroiters have navigated a confusing network of public education options, have persisted in finding work to make ends meet, and now are struggling with equitable access to a digitally connected world. Detroiters not only need access to clean water and robust education and training opportunities, but the city needs to step up and lead to close the digital divide as well.

What is the digital divide, you ask?

The digital divide is: “the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the Internet, and those who do not.”

Why is this important to Detroit, and the State of Michigan?

According to analysis of US Census data by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Detroit ranks in the top ten of least-connected cities in the United States.

           Detroit households (2018):               266,233

           % without broadband:                       29.7%

           % without broadband, DSL, fiber:     52.1%

Detroit being among the least-connected cities in the US is contributing to the economic crisis in the city and across the region as concerns education attainment and workforce readiness.

On the point of education, we must first acknowledge that it is the policy of the State of Michigan that while every student has a right to a free public education per Article VIII, Section 2 of the State Constitution, individual students do not have a right to a quality education, nor a right to literacy. This has been the case since November 2014 when students from Highland Park lost their legal battle against their school district and the state who controlled the district via emergency management.

The digital divide has become a direct contributor to the lack of quality education in Michigan. According to a March 3rd report from the Quello Center at Michigan State University, “Broadband and Student Performance Gaps,”:

  • 82% percent of students in grades 8-11 report that they sometimes or often receive homework that requires Internet access.
  • Those who have no Internet access from home spend an average of thirty additional minutes on homework per night.
  • 64% of students with no home Internet access often or sometimes leave homework unfinished because they lack Internet access or a computer. This compares to 49% of those who rely on cell phones, 39% with slow home access, and only 17% of students with high-speed home Internet access.

The negative impact from lack of broadband access transitions seamlessly from public education to workforce participation. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), as of 2014, nearly 70% of all available job postings are online, and those job postings assume digital literacy as a basic and required job skill. Detroit has the lowest labor participation rate among the 40 largest cities in the US.

The NTIA state broadband programs map notes that, “the State of Michigan does not have an office dedicated to broadband.” Instead, the state has relied on third-party coordination of state broadband assessment via Connected Nation.

In January 2018, former Governor Rick Snyder issued Executive Order 2018-2, establishing the Michigan Consortium of Advance Networks (MCAN), which was convened and coordinated by Connected Nation staff. MCAN released a report of their activities, the “Michigan Broadband Roadmap,” in August 2018. MCAN was instructed by the Governor to, “create roadmap for high-speed, secure, reliable and affordable broadband infrastructure for the State of Michigan.” Despite this charge, the report did not mention the City of Detroit specifically, except as a “participating organization.” Further, there were no actionable recommendations that sought to close the digital divide for the benefit of students who need to receive a quality education to become workforce ready.

Joshua Edmonds is the Director of Digital Inclusion at the City of Detroit, and also a Digital Inclusion Fellow with the University of Michigan. According to Edmonds, he is working to address the digital divide for city residents even though there is no dedicated funding in the city budget to do so. He is currently focused on building a working group of corporate, public and community partners, including Detroit Public Schools Community District, Amazon and Google, who meet quarterly to identify strategic objectives that inform city fundraising priorities. Edmonds notes that many community leaders do not have strong understanding of the relationship between the digital divide and workforce readiness, nor that such a large number of Detroiters do not have access to what many now consider a basic utility. He has coined the city’s focus on the digital divide Connect313.

One grassroots response to the digital divide is the Detroit Community Technology Project, and their Equitable Internet Initiative (EII). This effort is a collaboration between the Allied Media Projects, Grace in Action (SW Detroit), the Church of the Messiah (Islandview), and the North End Woodward Community Coalition (North End & Highland Park). The EII seeks to, build a “healthy digital ecosystem that allows our communities to fully realize their right to communicate, participate, and fully engage in all areas of society.”

With the help of 123Net, a commercial internet service provider, EII has built a distributed access network in Southwest Detroit. The company is providing one gigabit of service, allowing the launch of a not-for-profit pilot program in Southwest Detroit.

Nyasia Valdez, Digital Steward Trainer for EII, explained that the effort is focused on serving the most vulnerable populations with basic internet service and digital literacy training. The SW pilot project has connected 35 homes, 25 of which did not previously have internet access.

The process moving forward is, at best, incremental and does not address scale. There is a large gap between the challenges around equitable broadband access and community awareness, with few actionable recommendations on the table to address true community need. This is true despite having easily found media coverage and reports on the digital divide available since 2015 (FCC, Detroitography, MetroTimes). This topic is not unknown to political leaders, internet service providers or philanthropy, and may be worthy of systems change solutions.

One option Detroiters have to address systems change is to amend the city charter. To do this, a coalition of community groups, public education advocates and workforce education providers could coalesce around a city ballot proposal. With about 3100 valid signatures a ballot question could be put forth to ask Detroiters to agree to have the city address the digital divide as a basic city service.

While primary utilities like access to clean tap water and electricity are critical to maintaining a basic quality life, mobile and broadband internet service has evolved to become critical on its own merit. This is true when considering K12 education, and the sustained adult learning needed to successfully participate in today’s workforce.

The City of Detroit has the municipal infrastructure in place to provide for a public broadband utility that has the scale to reach every Detroiter. The Public Lighting Department has in recent years invested tremendous public resources bringing the lights back to Detroit’s streets. Some of these lights and related equipment have been equipped with internet connectivity. The network of light poles around the city make for a natural infrastructure to broadcast a municipal internet service available to all Detroiters.

Without universal access to reliable broadband, many Detroiters will continue to be left behind while the rest of the world with access moves on without them. This is a challenge that can be addressed, fixed, and the city’s residents would better for it.

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