Internet Access For All

Juan Villela

A while back, I read an article on Ars Technica about a group of neighbors that built their internet service. They got fed up with the sorry state of their local ISP and decided to take matters into their own hands. A few community residents formed a nonprofit to purchase service from a local enterprise ISP. The signal was received across the bay and serviced to the Doe Bay community with a mesh of access points. Some were installed atop buildings and houses. Others required more creative solutions and were installed on trees with the help of drones.

I found this piece fascinating. The ingenuity of a few willing people with a bit of technical know-how. But this story is about a wealthy community with the resources to solve their internet problems. And I don’t mean to take away from their accomplishments. What they did is fantastic, and I hope it encourages more people to learn the technical skills needed to find solutions like these. But if an affluent community like this can find itself needing basic internet access, it’s likely happening in neighborhoods with far less money.

Detroit is one of those places. It’s ranked as one of the worst-connected cities—a list filled with 600+ locations. A utility we take for granted daily—on which we depend so much—is hardly accessible to a large portion of the country. Knowing how we get our internet, is essential to better understand why this happens. If you want a comprehensive breakdown, Vox’s video on how the internet works is a great resource.

But in short, the internet is essentially 500+ underwater cables that span across the globe. These cables connect continents to a vast network of servers. Tier 1 service providers usually operate these. On the ground, tier 2 providers help connect cities. And we access those via tier 3 providers. They are the local retail internet providers that own or purchase access from the larger providers to sell you internet access. These crappy companies sell their services at a premium just because they can. It’s often the case that they hold a monopoly in a particular area where you find yourself obligated to pay only them. Many of these providers spend large amounts of money lobbying to help pass legislation that hampers municipal internet efforts. While still providing terrible service, or in many cases, none.

And that’s where Detroit has found itself for a while now. With few available options, they have also taken matters into their own hands and created the Equitable Internet Initiative. At first, just a few neighbors shared their internet connections via mesh networks. But this fell in a legal gray area. The recent 99% Invisible episode called The Future of the Final Mile goes more into detail:

This spurred community initiatives like Detroit’s Equitable Internet Initiative to contract directly with tier 2 providers, going around traditional tier 3 companies and providing broadband services to hundreds of homes in multiple neighborhoods.

123Net—a tier 2 provider—now provides the EII with multiple free fiber access points for their mesh network. Thereby removing the need to purchase services from tier 3 providers.

The EII has trained digital stewards who install access points across different neighborhoods to service these neighborhoods. These are also installed atop buildings and houses, providing broadband to people’s homes. In some instances, public spaces are set up for people to go with their devices and get online.

What the folks in Detroit are doing is fantastic as well. It is as ingenious as what was done in Doe Bay years ago. However, knowing that such a large area struggles to get online could be better. Internet access isn’t just social media and streaming services. Online is where we learn, connect, work, and further our opportunities to better our lives.

“Communication is a fundamental human right.” - Diana Nucor

If you wish to lend a hand to the folks in Detroit, you can visit the Detroit Community Technology Project.