Clever Laziness

On Internet Access

Juan Villela

A while back I read an article on Ars Technica about a group of neighbors that built their own 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 of the community residents got together and 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 little 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. I still think that what they did is amazing and hope it encourages more people to learn the technical skills needed to find solutions like these on their own. But if an affluent community like this can find itself lacking 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 every day —on which we depend so much— is hardly accessible to a large portion of the country. To better understand why this happens, it’s important to know how we get our internet. If you want a more 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. These are usually operated by tier 1 service providers. 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 certain 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 at all.

And that’s where Detroit has found itself for a while now. With hardly any options available to them, they have also taken matters into their own hands and created the Equitable Internet Initiative. At first, it was just a few neighbors sharing 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 EIIundefined with multiple free fiber access points for their mesh network. Thereby removing the need to purchase services from tier 3 providers.

To service these neighborhoods, the Equitable Internet Initiative has trained digital stewards that install access points across different neighborhoods. These are also installed atop buildings and houses, providing broadband to people’s houses. In some instances, public spaces are set up for people to go with the devices and get online.

What the folks in Detroit are doing is amazing as well. Every bit as ingenious as what was done in Doe Bay years ago. However, it’s a terrible thing to know that such a large area struggles to get online. 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.