Michigan nonprofit working to connect Flint, other communities with free WiFi service

Hot spots open to the public could open at various sites, such as Factory Two
Published: Nov. 24, 2020 at 8:12 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - A Michigan nonprofit organization is working to provide several Michigan communities, including Flint, with free public WiFi service.

The lack of WiFi connectivity in the Vehicle City and other parts of the state is a bigger issue than many people realize. The COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue of a digital divide to the forefront.

“This impacts the way people are working, going to school, participating democratically, how they’re just even to able have equity as far as a digital citizenship goes,” said Pierrette Dagg of the Merit Network.

The nonprofit based in Ann Arbor is owned by 12 of Michigan’s 13 public universities. The organization recently announced plans to provide free WiFi hot spots in dozens of communities around Southeast Michigan, including Flint.

Tech giant Cisco and Toyota are assisting with the effort. Right now, Factory Two in Flint is a potential site and others could be in the works.

“In some cases what this allows users to do is go to the parking lot of the sites to be able to maybe apply for jobs, to turn in telework, to do a virtual doctor’s appointment, to turn in homework, things like that,” Dagg said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city of Flint has the second highest number of households without internet in the state at 14,221 next to Detroit. Out of Michigan’s 1.5 million students, 419,000 lack access to high speed internet.

The divide extends beyond suburban communities. A study by the Quello Center at Michigan State University found that only 47% of students in rural areas have high speed internet compared to 77% of students in suburbs.

The cost to fully connect all of Michigan to high speed internet and eliminate the digital divide could cost nearly $2 billion.

“It’s presented new challenges. It’s highlighted existing ones and I think this is really showing how deep this access and equity and the divide really is,” Dagg said.

A timeline for launching free WiFi sites around Flint was not announced Tuesday.

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