Local nonprofit provides free internet access to Detroit residents

Local nonprofit provides free internet access to Detroit residents

(NEWCC) provides completely free internet service to residents of Hamtramck, Highland Park and New Downtown Detroit
Courtesy picture” class=”uk-display-block uk-position-relative uk-visible-toggle”> Click to enlarge (NEWCC) provides completely free internet service to residents of Hamtramck, Highland Park and New Downtown Detroit - Courtesy Photo

Courtesy picture

(NEWCC) provides completely free internet service to residents of Hamtramck, Highland Park and New Downtown Detroit

Approaching random Hamtramck residences and offering them free internet service feels like a prank or a bad horror movie waiting to happen.

But in this case, there is no trap or boogeyman lurking. The North End Woodward Community Coalition (NEWCC) provides completely free internet service to residents of Hamtramck, Highland Park and the New Center neighborhood of Detroit.

“It’s indefinite until you decide you don’t want it anymore,” says project coordinator Camille Reed. “There are no monthly fees. You pay nothing. You have nothing to regroup and we won’t hurt you if you decide to leave us. And if you are moving around the area, we can travel with you.

“Digital redlining” is a problem in many communities. Nonprofit Investigative Newsroom markup found that several Internet service providers offer residents of cities with large minority populations like Detroit terribly slow Internet for rates similar to what they charge wealthier cities for much faster speeds.

markup analyzed approximately 1 million Internet offers from AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and EarthLink in nearly 40 US cities, including Detroit. The Newsroom released a report in October showing that about 40% of Internet deals in Detroit were for slow speeds below 25 Mbps — which is so slow the Federal Communications Commission doesn’t even consider it a service at broadband.

NEWCC executive director Reverend Joan Ross said digital redlining has long been a problem in Detroit, with many people having slow internet or no access at all.

The nonprofit began offering free connections through its Fair Internet Initiative in 2016 at New Center. It expanded to Highland Park during the pandemic when they learned that children in the area were largely without internet access and could not follow their lessons or do their homework online.

They soon realized how many seniors were also cut off from the world during the pandemic, with no opportunity to socialize in person.

“A lot of elders, maybe their community was in the church and they couldn’t go there anymore and they didn’t have access to the internet, they were literally just on the planet with no connection to anyone and nowhere to go,” Ross said.

The coalition now provides free internet access to the entire seniors community from Labelle Towers to Highland Park and is working to connect all seniors housing buildings in the neighborhood.

It’s not just for seniors or families with kids, though. NEWCC will provide internet service to anyone living in the service areas, and there is not even an income requirement.

“We don’t assign income to eligible individuals because we believe everyone in Detroit needs this service,” Ross says. “It was designed for families who didn’t have access to it or low-income families who couldn’t afford to use commercial ISPs, but during the pandemic we weren’t eligible for the income. If you lived in our neighborhood and we could send you a signal, we thought your child needed that signal. We are still not eligible for income.

NEWCC’s Internet service is distributed from central points they have installed in these neighborhoods. Hubs must have a clear line of sight to the organization’s office at 7700 Second Ave., where the Internet signal originates.

NEWCC expanded to Hamtramck last year and has just started providing a service of residences. Ross says the group serves around four Hamtramck residences so far and has gone door-to-door offering free internet access.

In total, the group provides Internet services to around 400 households in the three communities.

NEWCC Executive Director, Reverend Joan Ross
Courtesy picture” class=”uk-display-block uk-position-relative uk-visible-toggle”> Click to enlarge NEWCC Executive Director, Reverend Joan Ross - Courtesy Photo

Courtesy picture

NEWCC Executive Director, Reverend Joan Ross

Ross believes that internet access is a fundamental right for digital equity.

“I think the federal government should pay for everyone’s internet and we shouldn’t have to be stuck with this $118 a month bill,” she says. “It’s so unfair. We had an elderly person who had to work from home once the pandemic hit and her internet got so high she couldn’t afford it. She was just doing a little job at part-time from home, but if there hadn’t been any other way, she wouldn’t have had a job at all.

She adds, “We can do it in our neighborhood. Some people say we can’t sustain it. Well why not? We have maintained it for five years and we have 400 connections and [we’re] grow every day. »

NEWCC began as an emergency food pantry in 2006 and has since evolved into a mobile food pantry, a community radio station and a community land trust called Storehouse of Hope, which has purchased a slew of tax-exempt homes. tax and offered occupants a low-cost rent. .

The idea was to keep people in their homes and eventually return property to them, but the program has been criticized for struggling to keep up with repairs to deteriorating homes. Some occupants even referred to Ross as a “slum landlord”, as most of them were unable to purchase their homes at Storehouse of Hope.

For now, the Equitable Internet Initiative is funded by grants from organizations such as the Knight Foundation and the Toni Foundation, though Ross expresses uncertainty about how long the funding will last.

“Grants are like you’re the flavor of the month,” says Ross. “Last year, the Knight Foundation gave us a grant of $750,000 over three years to build the North End. They said nothing about Highland Park and Hamtramck. After three years, they can say, “Well, you know, it was a good deal, but it’s just one of those things.” We’ll move on.

Ross notes that the infrastructure and network will still be in place. If the organization struggles to find ongoing funding, she says she may eventually have to charge people for internet, although the fee is minimal.

“Maybe then I should say, ‘Hey customers, you’ve had this for five years for free, now I’m out of money, would you be willing to pay me a third of what you would pay Comcast so can we keep it up?” she said. “We got them to sign an agreement that it’s our equipment and I don’t know how long I can keep it for free. it’s free for a long, long time, but if not, could they pay $5, $6, or $10 a month? I don’t know.”

Ross says the most important thing is that internet service remains affordable.

“Right now everyone is talking about digital equity and it’s a solution on the ground,” she says. “It’s the community that thinks for itself and we own it. It’s ours. I want us to own these things and not just feel like everything is being taken from us.

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