Broadband Not Accessible for All in Metro-Detroit

Even in the age of the internet, accessibility is limited for many, including in Southeastern Michigan.

According to the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG), there are about 1.6 billion homes in the seven county region with broadband and about 250,000 without it. In other words about 87 percent of homes in the region have internet and 13 percent are without it.

Access to broadband connectivity is two-fold though.

In a small percentage of the region there is no connectivity. In Southeastern Michigan, 99 percent of homes have access to broadband and 1 percent do not; this equals to out about 1.9 homes having access to broadband and about 10,000 not having access. The first map below highlights where any kind of access to the internet lacks. Each county in the region is affected, with very small neighborhoods in even some of the most populated areas (Detroit, Canton, West Bloomfield, etc.) experiencing some dead zones. However, the more rural areas in the region (north Macomb County, western Livingston and western Washtenaw counties) and several areas throughout St. Clair and Macomb counties) have much larger areas where access to broadband does not exist. While the land area where access is lacking looks large, the population that lives in these areas must also be considered. As noted, overall, there are about 10,000 people who do not have access to the internet due to service not existing where they live.

The first chart below highlights those who are underserved by broadband, which not only includes those who do not have access to broadband at all but also those who do not have access to highspeed internet (meaning they may have access to slower internet that does not allow for extensive streaming, downloading, etc.). St. Clair County has the highest percentage of homes that are underserved at  7.1 percent, followed by Monroe County where 2.5 percent of homes are underserved. Oakland County has the lowest percentage of homes that are underserved at 0.4 percent.

***All data in this post is provided by SEMCOG***

While the existence of broadband infrastructure is a concern, so is overall access, especially for those who have limited access to the infrastructure. The chart below shows the percentage of homes that do not use the internet. Wayne County has the highest percentage of homes that do not use the internet at 19 percent and, conversely, Washtenaw County has the lowest percentage of homes that do not use the internet at 7 percent.

Factors that play into a home being able to obtain broadband include income, age and race. For example, in Wayne County, 49 percent of households with an average income of $20,000 a year or less do not have the internet. This income bracket has the highest percentage of homes without internet across the region. When examining aging groups that data shows that 33 percent of the 65-years-of-age and older population does not have the internet; this is the age bracket with the highest percentage of individuals without access. And, finally, 13 percentage of the black population in Wayne County does not use the internet. Blacks have  the highest percentage of non-usage in Wayne County, and in every other county in the region.

Access to the internet is vital for many. This was fully demonstratated when COVID made remote work and school a necessity. As our society continues to evolve, access to this lifeline must become more accessibility to the population despite their location, income, race and age. As the data shows, race, income and age certainly play a factor in accessibility so breaking down those barriers must be a priority, as should developing stronger infrastructure in more rural areas. 

Locally, Washtenaw County has committed more than $13 million in American Rescue Act Funding to expand affordable and equitable high-speed broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved communities. This is part of a larger investment by Washtenaw County which is focused on connecting every to high-speed broadband infrastructure.

Additionally, the City of Detroit is creating a test fiber-to-the-home connectivity project in Hope Village. This project will connect about 2,000 homes to affordable service. This project is also being funded by the American Rescue Act.

With millions of dollars dispersed to every county in American Rescue Act Funding, this should certainly become a priority for more places than just Washtenaw County.

COVID Puts Digital Divide on Display

There is a digital divide across the State of Michigan and across the country, largely related to  socioeconomic factors. As the coronavirus hit the US that divide grew even wider as access to public and private places that normally provide amenities such as the internet and computers were shuttered. The divide also grew as students had to finish the school year from home, and thousands were left without computers or internet access. While schools had printed resources available to ensure students could complete the school year, the access to the digital world-or lack thereof-was substantial. 

In the State of Michigan Detroit Public Schools had the highest number of households without internet access–82,894, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The second highest number in Michigan was the Flint School District which had 14,221 households without internet access. Looking only at Southeastern Michigan, Utica Community Schools had the second highest number of homes without internet access (behind Detroit) at 7,181 homes. There were 5 times as many households in the Detroit Public Schools district without internet access than in the Flint School District and 11 times as many households in Detroit Public Schools than in Utica Community Schools without internet access. Detroit Public Schools is the largest district in the State. 

While Detroit Public Schools is the largest district in the State it also provides education to students who live in some of the lowest median income households in the State. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 47 percent of children in Detroit live below the poverty level. On the other end of the spectrum, Northville Public Schools is the wealthiest school district in the State with 1.4 percent of children living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau. There were only 755 homes within Northville Public Schools that did not have access to the internet. 

As the Statewide map shows (below), the majority of the districts throughout Michigan had less than 2,400 homes without internet access. For several smaller districts, such as those throughout the northern part of the lower peninsula and all those in the upper peninsula and the west side of the State, the lower numbers are understandable due to the smaller number of students in districts. But, what stands out is the districts on the map that are red, orange or blue. These larger urban areas including Flint, Grand Rapids and Lansing were all in the districts with the higher numbers of households without internet access.

The second map shows a more concentrated look at Southeastern Michigan. This highlights how several school districts closer to Detroit also had a higher number of homes without internet access. Some of these are also low or moderate income communities. For example, the lower half of Macomb County, which is more urban and densely populated, has four school districts where between about 7,200 and 14,000 households do not have access to the internet. 

According to the article “The Effects of Home Computers on Educational

Outcomes: Evidence from a Field Experiment with Community College Students” published in The Economic Journal, access to computers and the internet improves students’ skills to getting school work completed, which in turn improves educational outcomes. The Skillman Foundation, DTE Energy, General Motors and Quicken Loans have all worked to provide laptops to Detroit Public Schools students in need throughout this pandemic. Additionally, companies such as Comcast have opened their hotspots for more widespread internet access. However, the coronavirus has shed light on many different socioeconomic issues.  The digital divide and its impact on distance learning is certainly one of them.

Internet access has arguably come close to a fundamental need for many day-to-day functions, including for schoolwork.  The recognized need for the internet to aide in school work is supported by the recent partnerships, discussed above, with universities and corporations to provide access to those without it in the Detroit Public Schools district. Furthermore, in Kalamazoo, where 5,191 homes are without access in the public school district, a similar partnership was developed with the City through its Foundation for Aspirational Excellence Fund. This fund is supported through the City, the school district, the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the Kalamazoo Promise. The director of the Kalamazoo Promise, Von Washington Jr., was recently quoted in MLive saying how the recent closure of public schools “exacerbated the educational inequities that are present in our community.”

As non-profits and corporations step up to, at least temporarily, fill the gap in internet access to ensure students can continue to learn, we must also ask what other ways the internet has become essential, especially during a pandemic. During the pandemic online doctors appointments were often the only access to medical care. Working remotely was mandated in many workplaces. Buying goods and groceries, via the internet has become a new way of life. Access to the internet has become so useful-even essential-in everyday life functions the United Nations passed a resolution in 2016 declaring it a human right. The partnerships discussed above related to the concerns of internet access for education equity also highlights how, at least nationally, more and more attention is being focused on the need for broadband access no matter where or who you are. Whether or not everyone will have access in the near future, and how that access will be supported-through public or private dollars, or combination of both-remains to be fully addressed though.