By Karen Dybis and Maureen McDonald
With more Detroit street lights on, blighted properties boarded-up, fewer issues with trash pick-up, a toughened response to illegal scrapping and increased access to fresh foods, it is clear that the quality of life in Detroit’s neighborhoods is continuing to improve.
Many of the latest improvements in city services are either supported by or reliant on Internet access. Given the trend, it’s important that city residents have the reliable connections and services necessary to support community safety and development.
The issue is at the forefront of conversations among thought leaders including Mayor Mike Duggan, the Detroit Regional Chamber and Internet providers including Rocket Fiber and Comcast Cable. Together, these organizations along with community groups, social-service agencies, school districts and non-profit organizations are hard at work to eliminate Detroit’s longstanding issues around the lack of Internet access, often known as the “Digital Divide.”
The issue came up again during the 2016 Detroit Policy Conference, where more than 700 of the city’s most influential change makers came together to talk about neighborhoods, the challenges of reaching residents without access to digital services and equipment, and the opportunities that are likely to result from improved access.
The need is real: Only 45 percent of families earning under $30,000 currently have broadband Internet service in their homes. In Detroit, some 100,000 Detroit households have no Internet service, according to data crunched from the U.S. Census American Community Survey for 2013, and reported by Daily Detroit in 2014.
Comcast is ramping up an all out effort to serve the Detroit community to help families cross the digital divide says Craig D’Agostini, vice president, external affairs for Comcast Cable in the Heartland Region.
“Access matters, particularly in Detroit,” D’Agostini said at the Detroit Policy Conference this week in an interview with the TheHUB. “We know that children need to do research to complete their homework, that parents need to communicate with teachers about student progress and all the family members need access.”
What many don’t and should know is that Internet service is available to qualified families for a cost of just $9.95 a month, through Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” program which typically costs the average consumer $40 to $60 a month for Internet service.
Now, in its fifth year, the program comes with added security support like Norton Security Suite, which helps protect against computer viruses and unwanted access, as well as controls that help parents control on what their children can and cannot see on the Internet, in addition to being able to limit their kids’ screen time.
But access doesn’t matter if you don’t have a computer.
That’s why Comcast offers qualifying families an opportunity to buy a laptop computer at a heavily discounted price of $149.99.
They even provide free in-person, online and printed assistance to set-up and teach family members how to use the equipment, in addition to the typical phone and Internet support offered by all providers.
About 132,000 families throughout Michigan have been connected to the Internet Essentials program, said Michelle Gilbert, Vice President Public Relations, Comcast Cable Heartland Region.
“We’ve made tremendous advancements to it in every year that program has been in existence,” Gilbert said. “Last fall, we doubled the Internet speeds and also made available free Wi-Fi routers for new and existing Internet Essentials customers. We’ve found the vast majority of our customers are using the Internet through Wi-Fi; we take that feedback and make enhancements to the program with that in mind.”
Gilbert said Comcast is working with multiple organizations including Youth Connection, Focus:Hope, Association of Chinese Americans, Detroit Hispanic Development Corp. and the Urban League of Detroit and Southeastern Michigan to collaborate and educate area families about this program.
“We’re always looking for others who are passionate about bridging the digital divide and partnering up with them,” Gilbert said, noting that Detroit-area schools and churches have been huge partners in getting the word out.
Comcast also is aware of the needs of other populations, particularly senior citizens, to receive the Internet in their homes as well. The company is in the midst of a pilot program in Miami to address this issue, and there are hopes it can roll out a new plan in other regions soon, Gilbert added.
And if there is any question, Detroit receives the same if not better services as any suburb, Gilbert noted. Once Comcast’s rollout of the high-powered DOCSIS 3.1 is complete across Detroit, customers with gigabit-capable devices will be able to get the service by signing up for a new plan and just plugging in a new modem. Last year, Comcast introduced Gigabit Pro, its residential fiber-based multi-gigabit service, in Detroit and across Michigan. That service needs professional-grade equipment installed and close proximity to Comcast’s fiber network. It also has added offices in the city to ensure its needs are met.
Detroit startup Rocket Fiber also is in the process of bringing fast and customer-driven Internet to downtown Detroit and beyond. The company offers “lightning fast” Internet service to both residential and business customers. This service will have speeds of up to 10-gigabit for residents and up to 100-gig speeds for businesses. By comparison, the average megabit speed in Michigan is a reported 11.8 megabits. Rocket Fiber’s plan, which costs residents about $70 per month, is just about 100 times faster than that. Commercial rates are about $299 per month.
“Our goal is to build our network beyond downtown and Midtown. We’re going to keep pushing outward,” said Marc D. Hudson, Rocket Fiber’s Chief Executive Officer. However, he cautioned that the process takes time and has a significant financial investment.
Hudson said Rocket Fiber is working with area groups as well as the city to ensure its products and services address Detroit’s real needs. He believes his startup company will be a valued partner to Detroit residents of every age, level of experience with the Internet and related technology as well as socio-economic status.
“We’re trying to come up with something that is inclusive of an entire community,” Hudson said. “It’s a citywide issue. It’s an issue for children for learning. It’s an issue for seniors in terms of access, like a system for online medical appointments. We know it’s an issue for employment. It’s something that touches everyone. We want to create a program that is inclusive and we can scale through the city.”
Here’s the bottom line: There are many people and businesses working diligently to improve Detroit’s access to the Internet. Companies such as Comcast are already in the mix, and it is updating its offerings to the city on a regular basis. Newcomer Rocket Fiber is working toward getting its products to more residents in addition to the business customers it has already online. And major stakeholders are fully invested in this process, ensuring it will remain a topic of discussion now and well into the future.
But there are challenges, both in terms of setting up infrastructure, the adoption process of using the technology available and making sure it is relevant to the people who use it, officials say. Like much of Detroit’s revitalization, bridging the Digital Divide will take miles of baby steps to get everyone where they need to be.