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These Young Entrepreneurs Have A Plan To Bring The Internet To Detroit, The Least Connected City In America

Of the many cascading consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, one is the deepening digital divide between those who can readily pay for and access the Internet, and those who can’t. With Americans sheltering in place and working from home, households that have immediate access to the World Wide Web have an obvious advantage: they can quickly access information about the virus, understand what resources are available around them, attend virtual school, connect with doctors through telehealth platforms, video chat with loved ones, and more. 

Simply put: Households that do not have high-speed Internet are falling behind. And according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, of all the cities in America, Detroit is ranked as the least connected city: nearly a third of its homes do not have broadband of any type and 50% of households do not have a laptop or desktop, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.  So what if we treated the Internet like a public utility, as essential and ubiquitous as electricity or water, and piloted this in Detroit? 

A team of Forbes Under 30 alumni hacked at this problem through the weekend, as part of the Forbes Under 30 Detroit Hackathon: Accelerating Change, in partnership with the city of Detroit, Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans and Major league hacking. They connected with Detroit-native stakeholders, advocates and experts across technology and public policy to come up with their solution. Their idea: Connectivity For All, a three-step pilot program that would be a public-private partnership to create a quick-to-implement, self-sustaining system to bridge the digital divide. 

The team quickly realized that parts of their solution had already been figured out by local organizations — the biggest issue was funding. “It’s obvious that a lot of people are tackling this,” said Ahmed Beshry, cofounder and chief business officer at Caper. “If you’re bringing services to people, you don’t want to give them a device or hardware and it only lasts six months. You need a sustainable model that continues to funnel funding into the problem because right off the bat, it was immediate that this was a money problem, this wasn’t a lack of infrastructure.”

With that in mind, the team dreamed up of tech hubs — physical community centers with free and reliable Internet that would have programs led by neighborhood liaisons to teach Detroit residents digital skills based on their most urgent needs, including financial inclusion, workplace skills development, small business growth, and telehealth. In parallel, as residents come to the tech hubs and master digital literacy, the facility would also distribute mobile devices and hotspots through partnerships with organizations like Human IT and Connected Futures. 

The third and final step of Connectivity For All, which was the most important for the group, was to find sustainable funding sources and incentivize private companies to invest in providing Internet en masse for Detroit residents. The team identified telehealth as the most lucrative opportunity. “We found that for medically underserved populations, if they were to receive basic clinical services like Pap smears, cancer screening, and more, it could get a return rate of $12 for every $1,” said Gautam Chebrolu, cofounder and chief technology officer at Pilleve during the team’s presentation. By identifying an ROI for the telehealth industry, the team hopes that this will incentivize company partners to facilitate and sustain other parts of this pilot, including providing infrastructure costs to the mobile devices and hotspots being distributed in the tech hubs. 

By looking at the 2018 Detroit Community Health Assessment and open public data from Detroit, the team identified East English Village in District 4 of Detroit as the pilot site for Connectivity For All, given that it is an area that is both medically underserved and has a 47% rate of households without the Internet. 

It will take more than a weekend to bridge the digital divide in the city of Detroit, but these Under 30 alums hope that their insights will encourage a unique partnership between the public and private sector. “The problem requires all the major parties at the table,” said Beshry. “You need industry, the government, telecom companies, community leaders, sponsors to all work together to bridge this gap. It can’t just be one micro-initiative.”

Team Members: Ahmed Beshry, Cofounder, Caper; Gautam Chebrolu, Cofounder, Pilleve; Rachel Greer, Business Partner, Rock Central; Adele McClure Executive Director, Virginia’s Legislative Black Caucus; Annie Ostojic, STEM Researcher, Stanford University; Jason van den Boogaart, Director of Product, Rocket Loans.

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