• Residents in Detroit are being recruited as digital stewards to install and maintain a local internet network.
  • Around 40% of the city’s homes have no internet connection.
  • In developing countries, around 3.6 billion people have no access to the internet.

Millions of us take internet access for granted, especially in the developed world. But cost and location can be big barriers to getting online. In Detroit in the United States, for example, around four in ten residents don’t have internet access at home.

Now neighbourhoods in the city are building their own internet. People are being trained as “digital stewards'' with responsibility for setting up and installing wireless access points. They also educate people on how to use the internet.

The Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), which runs the project, says Detroit has been one of America’s worst connected cities since 2015.

Detroit’s average household income is $26,249 per year, and 38% of homes have no internet connection, the initiative explains. More than 60% of low-income homes have no in-home broadband, and 70% of school-age children have no internet access at home.

EII says its digital stewards “come from the neighbourhoods they work in, are Black and other people of colour, and range in age from elders to teens.”

The initiative has built and maintained a high-speed internet network across large areas of Detroit over the last six years. Priority is given to homes with no existing connection and those with low-speed internet. Other priority homes include those of students, elderly people or families receiving government assistance.

Affordable internet

The cost of internet access and devices is a major contributor to America’s ‘digital divide.’

digital divide internet access detroi united states home equitable wireless access education parity inclusion government broadband smartphone
A survey by Pew Research Center illustrates the digital divide in the United States.
Image: Pew Research Center/Statista

One recent study by Pew Research Center found about a quarter of adults – 24% – with annual household incomes below $30,000 don’t own a smartphone. More than 40% don’t have either home broadband or a desktop or laptop computer.

digital, COVID-19, EDISON Alliance

EDISON Alliance: What is the Forum doing to close the digital gap?

COVID-19 has exposed digital inequities globally and exacerbated the digital divide. Nearly half of the world is still not online.

With more basic services moving online and the pandemic highlighting affordability challenges in wealthier nations, these deep digital gaps are exacerbating inequality and preventing the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

At The Davos Agenda, the World Economic Forum launched the EDISON Alliance, the first cross-sector alliance to accelerate digital inclusion and connect critical sectors of the economy.

The EDISON Alliance will prioritize digital inclusion as the platform of platforms for partners with a common purpose for achieving the SDGs. Its vision is to ensure that every person can affordably participate in the digital economy.

The not-so world wide web

Globally, around 3.6 billion people in developing countries don’t have access to the internet, according to the Brookings Institution report, Bridging the Digital Divide.

digital divide internet access detroi united states home equitable wireless access education parity inclusion government broadband smartphone
The highest level of internet access is found in North America.
Image: World Bank World Development Indicators (2020)

The same report finds that around 327 million fewer women have a smartphone to give them access to the mobile internet.

Other affordable internet projects include the Microsoft Airband Initiative. This was launched in 2017 to bring broadband access to 3 million people in unserved rural areas of the US by 2022. This year it was expanded to US cities where racial and ethnic minorities face large broadband gaps, including Atlanta, Cleveland and Memphis. Microsoft is also working with partners delivering affordable broadband to countries including Ghana, India and Kenya.

In Africa, Smart Africa is a commitment by African countries representing more than 700 million people to accelerate development through affordable broadband access and technologies.

And the Giga project aims to bring internet connectivity to every school in the world. It is a partnership between UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is the UN agency for information and communication technologies. Around two-thirds of the world’s school-age children – 1.3 billion – don’t have an internet connection in their homes, UNICEF says.