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Marginalized communities in Detroit are building their own internet infrastructure

Access to the internet has become a utility required for the basics of life, right up there with housing and clean water. Many organizations have taken to expanding high-speed internet access across the United States with the fervor of human rights, while corporate giants navigate technical challenges. Microsoft, for one, has an ambitious plan to increase internet access through television bandwith.

Vice’s Motherboard reported on a more locally-minded effort in Detroit, Michigan: the Equitable Internet Initiative (EII) where the disenfranchised are building their own internet.

The EII works with two pieces of infrastructure: a church that functions as a hub for the Wi-Fi and internet service provider Rocket Fiber, which offers high-speed fiber internet. Trained EII volunteers use wireless access points to beam the church’s main connection across the open air and provide internet to locations that can’t get a physical hookup.

The EII focuses on those who live in a home has low to no internet (10 Mbps or less), children, seniors, people pursuing educational opportunities, and spaces where they can get the most people on the internet at the same time, like homes with multiple families or public areas.

The EII offers a radical proposition that would allow people to get Internet outside of a major telecom. But it’s got its own money concerns. Initially, it worked off a federal grant. When that money dried up, the deal with Rocket Fiber made it viable again.

But that partnership will not cover the costs of more and more internet connections growing in perpetuity. Jenny Lee, the executive director of Allied Media Projects, the group behind EII, raised the question in a recent article. “How do we do this in way that doesn’t replicate the inequities of other utility companies? Are we going to be the equivalent of water department coming to shut you off if you don’t pay your bill?”

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One way the group hopes it will prove its worth is by creating apps. Its Next Gen Appsprogram teaches students coding basics like CSS, HTML, Javascript, and Node.js. Combined with the EII’s efforts to provide internet in their areas, there’s a hope that people will truly make the internet their own.

“Your parents may have given you your first bicycle, but when you buy your own, you had much more appreciation and respect for it,” say Monique Tate, a digital steward trainer. “We need to make people feel like it’s theirs, then they’ll be compelled to want to take care of it.”

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