A city’s effort to bridge the digital divide

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WASHINGTON (CNS) — As a native of Detroit, I was stunned to read in a press release that 40% of the city’s residents lack effective and affordable home internet access.

That means over a quarter million Detroiters can’t get what I love in Washington.

In 2021, nearly one in four American homes had no internet connection, according to Reviews.org, a website that rates products and services for home internet connectivity.

At least efforts are being made in Detroit to improve things.

One is an initiative by 123Net, Michigan’s largest local fiber internet provider, to work with two other nonprofit groups to start Project Overcome, which will connect a neighborhood in southwest city ​​with safe and reliable internet access.

The other is a bill to increase digital literacy that was introduced by Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Mich., whose congressional district includes part of Detroit.

First, the neighborhood wiring plan.

The neighborhood targeted by 123Net was a working-class section of town when I lived in Detroit. There were many Catholics who could trace their roots to Central and Eastern Europe. There has been a growing Mexican presence in southwest Detroit in recent decades. Will the collaborative be able to communicate with them as easily as it would with American-born Detroiters?

Besides, it’s only a neighborhood. And with nearly 256,000 Detroiters disenfranchised digitally, it will take more than just one initiative to close a gaping gap.

The Detroit Community Technology Project has been selected by the nonprofit organization USIgnite to receive $2.7 million in grants for Project Overcome. How many inhabitants will this money cover? And, given the size of the gap, how much more $2.7 million in grants would be needed to close the gap?

Detroit has enjoyed a mild resurgence since declaring bankruptcy in 2013, but the city — which now has less than a third of the population it had at its peak in 1950 — can only last its own dollars until present, hence the need for grants from a non-profit organization to do the necessary work.

There’s been something of a revival in an expanded downtown, but there are plenty of neighborhoods once considered strong and stable a generation ago that are now hard to navigate. The 48205 zip code, where I lived for four years before moving to Washington, is now nicknamed “4820-Die”.

And, to define the scale of the problem, Detroit’s current population is spread over 139 square miles. The District of Columbia, whose population has eclipsed Detroit’s since the 2010 census, has more people living in a quarter of the territory, which means similar solutions can reach more people faster — assuming that someone in the city is willing to make similar investments in the nation’s capital’s poorest neighborhoods.

Now let’s go to the Lawrence bill.

Known as the Digital Literacy and Equity Commission Act, Lawrence starts with an all too typical Washington solution: what she calls “a whole-of-government approach” with input from “agency heads and experts” on how to reduce the digital divide.

The bill would create a commission headed by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the secretary of education, with a report to be delivered to Congress with recommendations on how to improve and maintain the digital and information literacy of Americans.

A key part of the bill: a recommendation on how to measure digital literacy and promote interagency cooperation. Currently, an announcement from Lawrence’s office noted, there is no commonly used metric to measure digital literacy.

This new body would be responsible for looking after low-income and disadvantaged areas, which promises to reduce the digital divide. Her final report will include strategies to improve digital literacy through early education and community outreach.

“The pandemic has shown us how important the internet is in our daily lives, and my bill will help fill the gaps, especially in low-income communities,” Lawrence said in a statement announcing the project’s introduction. of law.

But here’s the big caveat: Lawrence has already announced that she is leaving Congress after this term. So is she willing to invest her accumulated political capital to make this happen before she leaves? It’s a big challenge. Given the polarization in Congress, thanks in part to wafer-thin majorities held by Democrats in each chamber, there is little guarantee that enough members across the aisle will support a bill. .

Can she attach it to a bigger bill? Can Lawrence find other members of Congress to push through this bill if she can’t do it herself? These are important questions that will require answers.

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Pattison is media editor for Catholic News Service.

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When you keep your eye on the television, what do you see? What do you like or dislike? What are your concerns and criticisms? Be as general or as specific as you wish. Send your comments to: Mark Pattison, Media Editor, Catholic News Service, 3211 Fourth St. NE, Washington, DC 20017.

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