Stacey Hammons served in the United States Navy during Desert Storm from 1988-1992. The 50-year-old is now a resident at Southwest Solutions Piquette Square in Detroit’s Milwaukee Junction neighborhood and is interested in entrepreneurship. But he had one barrier to his new endeavor: a laptop.
Hammons and the other 149 veterans at Southwest Solutions packed one of the center’s community rooms Thursday morning, where Mayor Mike Duggan, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Comcast Corporation Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer David Cohen, and others awaited them with good news. Every veteran in the program walked away with a free laptop and six months of complimentary internet access through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program.
“When I came down, I expected a presentation and maybe some lunch, but not the computers,” said Hammons, who has lived at Southwest Solutions for three years. “This was a big surprise and I was actually about to buy one. So this is a blessing to me and is going to help me well beyond what my tablet can do for me. I also appreciate Mayor Duggan and Lt. Gov. Gilchrist for coming out today. It shows that they care about us.”
Internet Essentials is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive high-speed internet adoption program for low-income Americans. It is designed to address each of the three major barriers to broadband adoption: digital literacy, access to computer equipment, and affordable internet service. Anyone who falls below the poverty line is now eligible to apply.
Along with being one of the more poverty-stricken large cities in America, Detroit currently has among the nation’s highest rate of residents who lack access to computers and the internet. Studies have shown that as many as 40 percent of Detroiters do not have access to broadband internet, even as broadband has become essential to employment opportunities, education, health care, news and information, shopping, and social life.
There have been strides to bridge the digital divide in Detroit, beginning with the Internet Essentials program offering its low-cost month-to-month WiFi home internet access to people eligible for public assistance programs including, the National School Lunch Program, Housing Assistance, Medicaid, SNAP and SSI.
“In this day and age, everything that we participate in, you have to be connected to the internet,” Mayor Duggan said at the event. “So with today’s announcement, Comcast is doubling the number of people with internet access in Detroit. You’re going to see us go from 100,000 people to 200,000 Detroiters, starting with the veterans living in Piquette Square.”
Cohen said the purpose of the Internet Essentials program is to offer people most in need of internet service the chance to get it.
For $9.95 a month, customers receive in-home WiFi, 15 megabits download and 2 megabit upload speeds, 1,024 gigabits of data a month, access to free online and in-person training, access to Comcast WiFi hotspots, and an option to buy a discounted computer.
“The internet is arguably the most important technological innovation in history,” he said. “It is unacceptable that we live in a country where millions of families and individuals are missing out on this life-changing resource.”
Having access to a computer and internet access changed the life of Lt. Gov. Gilchrist. His background is in computer science and tech, and once worked for Mayor Duggan under Chief Information Officer Beth Niblock as director of innovation and emerging technology. But growing up on the city’s east side, access to a computer and the internet was close to impossible, until his grandmother planted the seed that saw him sprout to 6-6, and the first Black Lt. Gov. in Michigan’s history.
“My grandmother had the foresight to buy her baby a computer when I was younger,” Gilchrist reminisced. “Getting access to that computer changed my whole perspective of what was possible. Something that was not accessible to my grandparents was now available to me and helped to shape my future. In fact, my first job was building computers at age 14 at a community center on the west side.”
Southwest Solution’s Piquette Square is a public housing facility that provides formerly homeless veterans with permanent housing, as well as wrap-around services including technology, health services, food services, and more. It received grants in 2017 ($10,000) and 2018 ($10,000) from the Comcast Foundation to support a computer lab and received another $25,000 on Thursday for a mobile computer lab and Wi-Fi access points.
“It’s important for our veterans to have internet access, because a lot of them want to get back into school to become more equitable and to enhance their quality of life,” said Michael Smith, a volunteer pitchman for Comcast’s low-cost Internet Essentials program. “In order to do that, they need internet access. It also allows them to connect with family members who may not be in the state. Something as simple as an internet video chat can go a long way for them.”