No access to the Internet? Detroit residents build it themselves

Detroiters are rolling up their sleeves and building the internet themselves.
Detroiters are rolling up their sleeves and building the internet themselves.


Ignored by large telecoms companies, residents of poor Detroit neighbourhoods are building the Internet for themselves. The Equitable Internet Initiative is a programme run by different community collectives that aims to widen a net of Internet access across disadvantaged neighbourhoods, while at the same time teaching the locals how to use it.

Detroit’s digital divide between economically advantaged and disadvantaged communities is, according to the Federal Communications Commission, “among the most extreme in the nation”. The FCC says that 63% of low-income households do not have access to the Internet at home – nearly 40% of the city’s total population.

Digital stewards testing a signal on a roof in Detroit's North End neighbourhood. Photo: North End digital stewards Facebook group

A coalition of different community groups, from local churches to a community technology project, have pulled together to create a grassroots initiative that involves literally building the Internet and installing it in people’s homes, cables and all.

To do this, the project trains volunteer ‘digital stewards’ in the installation of Internet connections using mesh wireless technology. A mesh network is a spider’s web of wireless links between homes, and it enables neighbours to share a connection – thus hooking up a number of different households to the Internet at the same time – and be part of a local intranet network. This intranet, or neighbourhood ‘mesh’, can also act as an offline community portal that works even in the case of an internet outage, enabling members of the community to organise responses to extreme weather or other disasters that may affect the neighbourhood.

A digital steward helping with an installation. Photo: North End digital stewards Facebook group

After 20 weeks of training, the digital stewards head out to install and maintain networks across some of Detroit’s poorest neighbourhoods. But there’s no point setting up the Internet if you don’t know how to use it. The project also focuses on improving digital literacy amongst the locals, and showing people who may not have used the Internet much before how it can help them in their everyday lives.

Three ‘anchor’ organisations manage the running of the project: WNUC Community Radio in the North End neighbourhood, the youth network Grace in Action in Southwest Detroit, and the Church of the Messiah in Southeast Detroit. The latter has created the BLVD Harambee Empowerment Center, which works to equip young black youth with skills for the future.

“We want to give access to those who can’t afford it”

Wally Gilbert works for the BLVD Harambee site of the Equitable Internet Initiative. He stressed how vital Internet access is in the digital age.

You need the Internet to apply online for jobs, to do research for your school project, to look up information. It changes the narrative. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.

Photo: Equitable Internet Initiative Southwest Detroit Facebook page

Photo: North End digital services Facebook group

So many public services now, be they local, state, or federal, have got to the point where you need Internet for just about anything. Without Internet, you are limited. Let’s say you have a job, you are busy going back and forth to work, and you don’t have time to go to a public library to use a computer. You get home too late. We know time is money. Having access to the Internet at home saves you a tremendous amount of time.

The Church of the Messiah has a computer lab that is open to the public. School kids use the computers to do their homework, and adults to apply for jobs. The church set up a “Build-A-Computer” programme to teach young people basic computer construction and components – and – build a computer they get to keep at the end.

Photo: Blvd Harambee Facebook group

Photo: Equitable Internet Initiative Southwest Detroit Facebook group

Without the Internet, computers are 'nothing more than typewriters'

Every holiday every computer in the church is used so that [students] can do their homework before going back after break. We had one young boy come in and use the computer, and I asked him, “Why are you here? I know we built you a machine [the boy was enrolled in the Build-A-Computer programme].” He said: “I have a computer at home but I don’t have the Internet." We had given them nothing more than typewriters.

Digital stewards helping with an installation. Photo: Blvd Harambee Facebook group

The EII is helping more and more people get Internet access in their own homes.

We’re providing Internet to at least 60 homes all around the BLVD Harambee centre. And the Wi-Fi can extend out into other properties. It’s a wireless network. We’ve put an access point on the roof of the church, and the top of the El Tovar apartments building. There are 40 units in that apartment complex. Once we wire it out to the individual residents, if it’s a single home or a townhouse they get an access point put onto the outside of their house or a satellite dish. That way it can spread further.

A dish newly-installed on the side of a building. Photo: North End digital stewards Facebook group

We want to give access to those that can’t afford it.

What makes the project so successful is that it is a community effort and we work with already existing projects. The congregation of the church is 60% African-American men under the age of 30. A lot of them hear about it through word of mouth and social media.

Digital stewards on their way to an installation.

There are certain areas that don’t have the infrastructure for high-speed Internet. So we make it feasible [for them to access the Internet anyway] with wireless. It’s important because as we can see, the government is trying to regulate the Internet more and more. Once we have our own network easily in place, if for some reason the Internet connection goes away, we can control our own intranet and provide information to each other.

The project is going to continue for some time. We want to extend to at least four or five square miles. For now we’ve only covered about half a mile in each direction.