Launch of Michigan Moonshot Community Access Network Brings Wi-Fi to Critically Unserved Areas

A new project borne out out of the Michigan Moonshot Initiative promises to help thousands of families and students without home Internet access get online. Led by the Merit Network, a coalition of partners (including Toyota, Cisco, the Detroit Public Library, the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, and county school districts) is installing Wi-Fi hardware at 50 sites around the southeastern part of the state to bring broadband access to thousands. Nine locations are up and running, with more soon to follow. 

The effort is taking place in the cities of Detroit, Inkster, Flint, as well as Washtenaw County. Toyota and Cisco are providing funds and hardware, and the project takes advantage of the Merit Network’s extensive fiber backbone running throughout the state (4,000 miles in total). Wayne State University is also participating, and inviting students and faculty and staff to participate in a broadband survey. Funds are being dispersed in the form of grants which will go to community organizations to boost existing Wi-Fi networks at schools and other anchor institutions across participating areas.

At the moment, the Detroit Public Library’s nine sites are the only ones active, but there are an additional 24 ready to be activated, and ten more pending after that. These include a host of early childhood centers, elementary, middle, and high schools, private schools, and community centers; in addition to the nine Detroit Public Library sites, installation will take place at six community centers around the city of Detroit, seven township halls via the Washtenaw County Broadband Task Force, and almost three dozen locations across the Washtenaw Intermediate School District. See the full list of active and upcoming sites, and a map of current sites below.

Atiim J. Funchess, assistant director of marketing at Detroit Public Library said of the project

The library has been on the forefront of trying to bridge this digital divide for a long while now. During this time period when it's not safe for people to go into places, we're glad for a way to keep things going.

The initiative comes at a welcome time. Detroit Public Schools alone has among its students almost 83,000 unserved households, representing almost 40% of the city, with 70% of school-aged children lacking access at home. The city of Flint has 14,221 unconnected households, representing almost a third of residents. And 57% of k-12 students in Washtenaw County have no basic broadband at home. Statewide, more than a quarter of households with schoolchildren lack access.

“The broadband gap is real and putting our young people at a disadvantage for life,” said Donna Lasinski, State Representative 52nd District. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made broadband access even more urgent and has validated the BOC’s investment in this project.”

Michigan, and Wayne County in particular, face particularly challenging circumstances in the midst of the ongoing pandemic. Cases have continued to rise over the course of October and November, and the southeast part of the state has been hit hard.

Charlotte Bewersdorff, Merit Network’s Vice President for Community Engagement said of the initiative: 

For thousands of students across the state of Michigan, the pandemic has introduced new challenges or highlighted existing ones. We expect this to help both rural and urban communities access the Internet for basic informational needs tied to living, learning and working.

The Merit Network, which leads the charge, runs a collections of projects aimed at improving broadband mapping, policy, and education throughout the state. The Michigan Moonshot hosts a suite of helpful resources for communities looking to improve access and build local networks.

Community Wi-Fi projects like these are critical in responding to Covid, but it’s equally important to remember that they complement, rather than replace, a firm commitment to fast, affordable wireline broadband and the digital inclusion tools people need in order to get online. Washtenaw County Commissioner Jason Maciejewski puts it clearly and concisely:

While parking lot access to the Internet is just a little bit better than no access at all, it is a step we were able to take quickly. Until we achieve county-wide broadband access, we must do whatever we can to close the digital divide for our students.  

See our other coverage of Wi-Fi projects going on around the country, or listen to Episode 427 or Episode 437 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast to see how communities in San Rafael, California and Providence, Rhode