When Georgianne Wright and her 13-year-old grandson, Keiontay, wanted to use the internet before the pandemic, she’d try the prepaid wireless plan she purchased from a national service provider. But the pair often gave up on browsing the internet or watching a movie thanks to the slow connection.
“It wasn’t working. It didn’t benefit neither one of us,” says Wright, who is Keiontay’s primary caregiver and lives in Highland Park, a small city surrounded by Detroit.
Then the pandemic struck and Wright desperately needed not only a reliable, fast connection but also a computer so that Keiontay could attend school remotely. Until then, they’d been using her phone to go online.
In Detroit, high-speed internet is concentrated in downtown and the surrounding affluent suburbs. But quality internet is often unaffordable or unavailable for tens of thousands of residents. Before the pandemic, the city’s median household income was $31,000, and many households couldn’t pay for water or electricity, much less high-speed internet packages that, in the U.S., average $70 per month.
The digital divide in Detroit is stark. More than a third of homes have no connection, two-thirds of low-income homes don’t have broadband, and 70 percent of public school students can’t access the internet from home, according to data collected prior to the pandemic.
So when many Americans hunkered down in their homes last spring, with an internet connection functioning like a lifeline to work, school, family, and resources like telehealth services and grocery delivery, Wright scrambled for a solution.
The pandemic has proven that consistent access to high-speed internet is an essential good.
Her story may sound familiar to the 77 million Americans who don’t have an adequate home internet connection. Only two-thirds of people who live in the country’s bottom income bracket can access the internet from home, and half of those do so from a mobile phone, according to Free Press, a nonprofit advocacy organization that focuses on policymaking for a “free and open” internet. While a quarter of white people lack wired broadband, the problem disproportionately affects Black, Latino, and Indigenous people, a third or more of whom don’t have access.
The pandemic has proven that consistent access to high-speed internet is an essential good. Without it, urgent tasks like applying for unemployment, attending school, scheduling a vaccine appointment, and seeing loved ones are difficult or impossible. Those who’ve finally gotten connected during the pandemic say it provides a sense of normalcy and safety amidst crisis. Advocates of equitable access say the internet is no luxury but instead a utility like water, gas, or electricity, and that Americans like Wright shouldn’t be left behind to bridge the digital divide on her own.
By last September, help indeed arrived for Wright. Organizers from the North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC), a social justice and community development nonprofit, had been knocking on doors in Highland Park trying to find residents who needed internet. In partnership with the Detroit Community Technology Project and its Equitable Internet Initiative, the organizers were offering free or affordable high-speed internet to residents in North End, a Detroit neighborhood, and Highland Park via a “neighborhood-governed” community wireless network. Wright signed up.
What she got was fully subsidized internet as well as a refurbished desktop computer and new accessories so that Keiontay could attend his 6th grade classes virtually. Now he spends his days in class and exploring his favorite subjects, English and science. He also plays games and helps his grandmother pay bills and access email. Wright, who previously worked as a housecleaner, spends some of her time online looking for social support programs that might assist Keiontay and her.
To make home installations safe, NEWCC developed “internet in a box” kits that include a power strip and wireless internet router. Wright received one as well, which meant that she set up the connection inside with the guidance of a technician who also completed the outdoor installation.
Wright’s wireless router connects to the Equitable Internet Initiative’s fixed wireless infrastructure. The technology, which is widespread, offers speeds the same or competitive with wired broadband, but does not require phone or cable lines to work.
This is critical in Detroit. Low-income neighborhoods lack the fiber optic cables that bring the internet into homes at lightning-fast speeds. Janice Gates, director of the Equitable Internet Initiative, says that cable companies and internet service providers have failed to invest in digital infrastructure in these neighborhoods because it’s not seen as profitable. As a result, the major internet service providers in Detroit, which face little competition, sometimes offer slow connections because they rely on outdated technology like DSL.
She describes the trend as digital redlining, a 21st century version of the discriminatory housing practices that kept people of color from white middle-class neighborhoods.
“To tell these people that because you live in this neighborhood, you’re going to have slower speeds, poor-quality connections, to me just perpetuates and further oppresses Black and brown people,” says Gates.
The Equitable Internet Initiative trains community members as “digital stewards,” teaching them the engineering skills it takes to set up neighborhood-governed networks, as well as organizing skills like neighborhood canvassing. Since 2017, the initiative has connected 250 homes and businesses to high-speed internet. During the pandemic, it created several community hotspots accessed by 750 people daily and launched an intranet so that residents could access homework packets, find resources for transportation, food pantries, education, and communicate with each other online, a feature that Gates says was particularly important for seniors who felt unsafe going outside. Their work, and the customer subsidies, are underwritten by foundation grants.
Gates says the initiative is trying to increase its capacity to reach more Detroit residents, but she also knows that solutions to this problem require the way we think about internet access to fundamentally change.
“Broadband is an essential service”
One way to close the digital divide is to make internet access broadly affordable and available, something only the pandemic could hasten given the high stakes of remaining unconnected.
In one high-profile example, Comcast increased the speed of its low-income “Internet Essentials” package after young students in Baltimore lobbied the company for the improvement. While it didn’t change the price of the basic package, Comcast made it twice as fast as the federal standard for broadband internet, which is 25 megabits per second (mbps) download/3 mbps upload. The upgrade now means customers and their children are less likely to need other pricey sources of data, like their mobile phone plan, to reliably access the internet.
Countless initiatives also rushed to provide schoolchildren with access and devices. The Verizon Innovative Learning program, a longstanding educational effort to close the digital divide, sent connected iPads to 123,000 children across the country last year. The devices access Verizon’s 4G network and come with free 30GB of data per month, which is meant to support students who are in hybrid or virtual learning.
For Abigail Rayas, a 7th grader in Phoenix, the iPad meant she could continue learning remotely while her peers returned to the classroom. Her household doesn’t have a broadband connection.
“I do my work from home so I don’t have to get my family sick, and that’s what I thought was the most important,” Rayas told Mashable.
The 13-year-old uses Webex to attend class and she particularly enjoys using the SketchesSchool app to complete her art assignments. Her family regularly uses the iPad to keep in touch with relatives.
Yet the solution that could drastically change access for the Rayas family and others in a similar situation came late last year. With the stimulus bill passed in December, Congress created a new subsidy called the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which provides eligible households with a discount of up to $50 ($75 for those on tribal lands) for a broadband package, and a one-time discount of $100 toward a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet, provided the customer chips in between $10 and $50.
“You need water, electricity, and broadband to survive, especially during this health crisis.”
Dana Floberg, policy manager for Free Press, says the benefit acknowledges how vital internet access has become.
“We’ve been arguing for awhile that broadband is an essential service, and it was essential before the pandemic,” she says. “You need water, electricity, and broadband to survive, especially during this health crisis.”
Floberg has been particularly worried about people who couldn’t apply for unemployment, sign up for a vaccine shot, or attend a doctor’s appointment, school, or a virtual eviction hearing in the last year because they lacked internet access. When a winter storm left Texans without electricity for days, Floberg says the importance of digital communication during a natural disaster became clear. The internet was how many people learned about warming stations, aid, and how to contact government officials.
Floberg says she hopes Congress considers the Emergency Broadband Benefit as a pilot that could lead to a permanent subsidy so that internet access remains affordable in a market where the few major corporate providers have little incentive to change how they operate.
“Customers on the fringes”
While affordability is key, limited access still remains a driving force of the digital divide across the country.
“There are lots of customers on the fringes and they’re scrambling,” says Matt Larsen, CEO of Vistabeam Internet in Gering, Nebraska.
Vistabeam is a small business that provides high-speed internet to more than 5,000 customers over 40,000 square miles. Many live outside city limits. Larsen says the pandemic prompted hundreds of new customers to sign up. Until then, some had gotten by using their phone or even an old DSL connection to do basic tasks online.
Larsen plans to accept the Emergency Broadband Benefit from the government on behalf of customers who qualify. He expects the subsidy to be particularly helpful for families with students and seniors living on fixed incomes. For them, an extra $50 a month counts as an impossible expense.
Vistabeam is also building out its fixed wireless network, which uses radio frequency to transmit and receive internet data. While Vistabeam also uses fiber where it’s currently available, fixed wireless is typically how Larsen reaches his more remote customers.
In general, fiber is seven times more expensive to build than broadband wireless, according to research conducted on behalf of WISPA, a lobbying organization that represents community-based fixed wireless service providers. Costs for fiber include major, lengthy construction to install cables as well as long-term maintenance. It can take years to connect homes in rural communities. Meanwhile, major service providers may see more risk than profit when it comes to spending millions of dollars to reach a few hundred or thousand customers.
To expand his wireless network, Larsen is using federal funding from the first COVID-19 stimulus bill. Congress designated that money for increasing access to broadband in rural areas. Larsen, who belongs to WISPA, says that the industry’s obsession with fiber will delay getting better connectivity to rural areas.
“What happens if we have another pandemic next year?”
Josh Luthman, CEO of Imagine Networks in Troy, Ohio, and a WISPA board member, says that with more frequency, community-based providers could better connect remote customers to high-speed internet. Currently, the government sells much of its licensed frequency for billions of dollars to corporate internet service providers so they can expand and enhance their networks.
That can leave independent service providers like Imagine Networks, which has 500 customers, scrounging for frequency in areas where government regulations determine where wireless transmitters can be built and placed. For fixed wireless, the equipment requires a clear line of sight, which often isn’t possible in rural areas where trees block the view but cannot be taken down. Luthman says that while fiber is available within Troy, it won’t be coming anytime soon to those who live well outside the city limits.
“What happens if we have another pandemic next year? Rural customers are really the ones we should focus on,” he says, noting that upgrading cities and airports to fiber without addressing internet access elsewhere favors people who frequently already have an excellent connection.
Floberg, of the advocacy organization Free Press, is hopeful that the pandemic will ultimately transform how we think of quality internet access so that it becomes available to anyone who wants it.
“It’s hard to think of almost anything that doesn’t require, or wouldn’t be significantly easier, if you had internet,” she says.