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From Detroit, a Dispatch on Bridging the Digital Divide

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, April 11 2012

Detroit at night, 2008. Photo: Ed Schipul

As more and more people become a part of what a 2011 McKinsey report called "the $8 trillion global economy," broadband access and digital literacy in many areas of the United States remain low.

In search of ways to avoid leaving Americans behind as the economy moves online, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded an $810,000 grant in September 2009 to Community Telecommunications Network, a Detroit, Mich. nonprofit. After three years of work, a new report shows how hard that can be.

As part of the initiative, Community Telecommunications Network partnered with three other community groups to bring broadband networks, digital literacy and computers to more than 5,000 lower-income Detroit residents.

The project first started in September 2009 when Knight gave $810,000 to CTN to create a broadband network. But Clearwire, a company now partially owned by Sprint, offered to build the infrastructure for free and donate the Internet connection to the project as part of its commercial broadband plans in Detroit. Meanwhile, the other non-profits used the Knight funding to begin the work of recruiting more than 5,000 residents to receive digital training.

The system selected would use commercial-grade Wi-Fi equipment and a 4G-wireless access network called WiMax. The network would be owned and operated by Clearwire using spectrum once allocated for educational purposes, according to the report.

Then the infrastructure providers pulled out. CTN had initially persuaded Cisco to put up 11 WiMax towers, but then the company backed off of its plans. Clearwire said it would commit to building three towers by September 2010, then indicated it wouldn't follow through, either.

CTN executive director Patrick Gossman says in the report that he had little negotiating room, "considering that he wasn't a paying customer." But in April 2011, seven months late, Clearwire completed construction of three towers and began providing free Internet service.

With the three antennas reaching only about 40 percent of the target area, only about 300 people, a minority of the people who had received training in digital literacy from the other organizations, would be able to take advantage of free broadband access. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan had donated 1,700 refurbished computers to participants who had finished their course. The Knight funding also enabled partners to receive $3.1 million in matching funds from the federal stimulus program's Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program.

The majority of trained residents, slightly more than 1,500, ended up paying for their own home Internet access through commercial providers available in Detroit such as Comcast and AT&T, with the average rate for monthly Internet in Detroit being about $30. In the areas where the Knight-funded initiative was working, about 30 percent of the population was at or below the poverty line — where $30 a month may be a more serious investment.

"After graduating [from the classes], a majority chose to purchase Internet access instead of waiting for the initiative's free network to come online, highlighting that literacy and relevance are the key factors to people's use of the Internet, not necessarily the cost," the report notes. "A number of participants in the Detroit initiative remarked that until they took the digital literacy course they were unaware of how integral the Internet had become to doing tasks such as applying for jobs, paying utility bills, searching for medical information, and even keeping up with their children’s homework."

Gossman is still negotiating with companies such as Comcast, AT&T and Clearwire to see if they can offer alternative lower-cost Internet connections after the grant runs out in May 2012.

"In the long run, my hope is that we will see the cost of broadband come down just as we saw cell phone service come down and people will be able to afford to get it," Grossman says in the report.

The recipients of the grant are also trying to extend other existing WiFi signals through mesh networks by placing Wi-Fi radio receivers on houses to pick up a core signal from antennas on the rooftop of another building, which is linked back, for example, to a community center's commercial Internet connection. Resident Wanda Rocquemore was balancing her computer on a radiator near her front window in order to pick up a signal, the report notes, until a CTN consultant was able to attach a Wi-Fi receiver to a downspout on her 80-year old home.

"Eventually, we should have enough of them on the outsides of homes, that we can zigzag the signal down the street," Pierce says.