Access to the Internet is a vital resource in low supply in low–income urban communities in the U.S., and the community development and relationship–building potentials of increased Internet connectivity align strategically with the historical and present–day outreach and social service missions of urban churches. Based on the geographic, demographic and environmental patterns of both Internet adoption rates and the high concentration of churches as built–environment features in older American cities, we propose a model of church–based Internet sharing. Using four case studies drawn from our work in Detroit’s urban core, we illustrate potential benefits and drawbacks of church–anchored neighborhood wireless networks. It is clear that churches offer advantages for neighborhood–scale communications infrastructure build–out; yet the impact of these efforts on churches and their communities is diffuse and hard to measure. Current evidence points toward the lack of defined physical impact of digital networks on surrounding neighborhoods, though this may change as current and future efforts progress. The intangible social impact of church–based Internet sharing is much more discernible in the short–term.
2. Barriers to Internet adoption in economically challenged U.S. urban cores
3. The role of churches in U.S. urban areas with low Internet adoption
4. Detroit case studies — Building digital infrastructure via places of worship
This paper examines the role of churches in under–resourced urban areas in the U.S. alongside the dynamics of Internet access and social support efforts. The authors represent the Open Technology Institute (OTI), a not–for–profit Washington, D.C. institution that partners with organizations in Philadelphia, Detroit, New York, and abroad to build wireless networks, facilitate digital literacy trainings, develop and improve technology solutions, and produce applied research findings. The impetus to examine the role of churches in fostering neighborhood digital connectivity comes from our experiences working with economically challenged urban communities, especially in Detroit.
In the course of our work, we have built upon a practical confluence between the density of urban churches, with their networks of social support and outreach, and the physical and social requirements of low–cost Internet access solutions. We work with local organizers and church leaders to mount wireless routers atop churches — often the highest points in residential urban areas and thus the most advantageous for signal propagation. Our observations of churches as neighborhood institutions has highlighted an overlapping spatial and social pattern: churches are often the core social support institutions in under–resourced areas with very low Internet adoption rates in the U.S.; they serve as hubs of social interconnection within their communities and as parts of larger institutional networks; and they offer wireless propagation opportunities due to their physical height .
In this paper we illustrate this emergent pattern and attendant opportunities for Internet sharing, then focus on our work in Detroit to demonstrate early outcomes of this approach to communications infrastructure. Four cases of wireless build–out based around Detroit churches show very different roles and outcomes for participant churches and allied social support organizations, with similarly divergent impact (or lack of impact) on the surrounding environment. As these cases are limited and mostly in pilot phases, is difficult to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of church–based digital communications organizing on built environments; however, we can point to some emerging patterns and suggest some advantages and disadvantages of this infrastructure build–out method. In addition, we can begin to qualitatively describe the effects of this work on social infrastructure, such as institutional and interpersonal networks.
2. Barriers to Internet adoption in economically challenged U.S. urban cores
The problem of unequal access to the Internet and digital resources has become a subject of policy debates in the U.S. as educational attainment and job opportunities, as well as government services, move online. In 2011, Julius Genachowski, former Chair of the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), opened debate on the government’s role in broadband access by asserted that “broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity in the 21st century” (Genachowski and Solis, 2012). A series of federal policy initiatives  has attempted to close the gap between those who have access and those who do not, yet the “digital divide” persists in many U.S. areas, both rural and urban.
Figure 1: Detroit, Michigan: Analysis shows home Internet subscription at around 25–30 percent across the city. Data: FCC Form 477 Subscription Reporting from Internet Service Providers.
In its “Eighth Broadband Progress Report”, the Federal Communications Commission (U.S. FCC, 2012) reported that approximately 100 million of nearly 311.5 million U.S. residents do not have home broadband subscriptions. Yet while the report discusses the cause of low subscription numbers in rural areas, it does not address the unevenness of subscription rates between more and less wealthy urban areas — for example, between the poorer urban core of Detroit and its wealthier outlying suburbs. As of 2010, according to Internet Service Provider (ISP) data collected by the FCC, as many as 65–70 percent of residents in under–resourced parts of U.S. urban cores did not access the Internet at home. National research studies find that in general, high rates of poverty are the strongest explanatory variable for low rates of Internet use. Low educational attainment, low household income, high percentage of African–American population, and high unemployment also correlate with low rates of Internet use (Smith, 2010; Horrigan, 2009).
The factors causing non–adoption of the Internet in areas where service is available are complex and interrelated. Many policy–makers cite the cost of service (Horrigan, 2009), lack of digital literacy, and a perception that the Internet is irrelevant (Smith, 2010). Yet a groundbreaking 2010 study commissioned by the FCC concluded that although respondents in low–income areas almost universally spoke of Internet access as a necessity, multiple overlapping challenges including cost, skill barriers, overburdened community intermediaries, and disputes with Internet service providers created barriers to accessing and using broadband services (Dailey, et al., 2010).
Figure 2: Poverty rates (left, Figure 2a) and Internet subscription rates (right, Figure 2b) in Detroit’s metropolitan statistical area. Data: FCC Form 477 Subscription Reporting from Internet Service Providers, 2010; American Community Survey 2005–2009.
Regardless of the cause, it is clear both that the cost of digital exclusion is rising and that “inequalities in individual access and use of the Internet closely map to demographic characteristics that are associated with many other inequalities” (Hampton, 2010). In particular, race and socioeconomic status tend to consistently predict adoption rates, even as inequalities related to gender and age are beginning to moderate somewhat (DiMaggio, et al., 2007). This means that as governments, educational institutions, and employers move their services online, the lack of digital access hits hardest those who can afford it the least — people already experiencing a chronic lack of access and services. “These forms of exclusion reinforce each other ... as the Internet becomes a critical tool for job–hunting, non–adoption itself becomes a driver of economic marginalization” (Dailey, et al., 2010).
Such patterns of digital exclusion show little promise of changing, due in large part to the market efficiencies — and the lack of effective public interest policies — that determine the shape of diffusion of broadband technologies. To illustrate this point, Khatiwada and Pigg (2010) point to the U.S. Telecommunications Act of 1996, which deregulated the industry in order to further the goals of:
... promoting competition, extending advanced telecom networks, and enhancing universal service. The implications of this act mean that the commercial sector will rely on its own assessment of market demand and competitive forces to guide future infrastructure investments. 
Thus, the telecom industry has little incentive or mandate to concentrate on providing low–cost or discounted service in areas where residents experience multiple barriers to accessing and using the Internet, preferring instead to improve service provision in areas with high–paying subscribers and potentially greater returns on investment. Strover (1988) explains that the telecom industry has been much quicker than governments to understand the commodity potential offered by control over communication systems. Thus U.S. telecom policies — especially the Telecommunications Act of 1996 — have prioritized sector profits over ensuring universal access, and underserved communities are paying the price.
In economically challenged urban neighborhoods, the lack of access creates an opportunity cost: aside from the evolving necessity of Internet access for employment searches and educational attainment, digital access can also provide a range of civic and community–building benefits. For example, Hampton’s 2010 study of Internet use for civic engagement in areas of concentrated disadvantage found that the Internet affords opportunities for engagement and collective action in those locations as well as in more well–off environments. Matzat (2010) also found that synergies between online and off–line activity strengthen rather than weaken relationships and community. Mesch and Talmud (2010) similarly argue that locally based digital commons, such as electronic bulletin boards, may function as a public space for community information exchange and social support.
However, none of these studies examines the role of Internet access on the physical characteristics of economically challenged neighborhoods. OTI’s work in low–income urban areas is designed to address the problem of digital access for residents who, due to multiple barriers, are otherwise not able to gain and employ digital skills for improved opportunities and community–building. We are interested in measuring the effects of increased access for individual attainment, neighborhood ties, social infrastructure, and economic development, as well as neighborhood–wide physical impact.
3. The role of churches in U.S. urban areas with low Internet adoption
The low–income, low–adoption urban areas described above generally share some historically determined physical characteristics. Across the U.S., many urban areas became destitute in the 1970s–80s due to urban out–migration, often characterized as “white flight” from depressed inner cities. This led to hypersegregation (Massey and Denton, 1989) and racial and class exclusion (Wacquant and Wilson, 1989). Overall, a concentration of poverty and neighborhood distress occurred as wealthier and more socially favored populations left the urban core for the suburbs (Kasarda, 1993). Thus, despite urban redevelopment efforts in the 1990s and 2000s and resulting gentrification, the demographic factors we have identified as most closely correlated with low Internet subscription rates (poverty, low household income, high index of racial segregation, etc.) are concentrated in urban cores across the U.S.
These areas, historically home to dense populations, also contain high numbers of churches as built–environment features, often preserved due to the legally expedited practice of designating religious institutions as historic landmarks and thus protecting them from redevelopment efforts (Wagner, 1991):
The physical presence of congregational meeting places is a prominent material feature of the structural landscape in poverty neighborhoods. Older urban neighborhoods are frequently the site of stately, historically significant buildings constructed explicitly for religious use. .
Yet beyond the density of church structures as features of the built environment in areas with low Internet subscription rates, the unique social support functions historically performed by sacred places in under–resourced urban environments also contributes to their importance as neighborhood stabilizers.
Figure 3: Distribution of churches in Detroit and Internet subscription rates. Data: U.S. Internal Revenue Service, 2010; FCC Form 477 Subscription Reporting from Internet Service Providers, 2010.
In their study of the relationship between places of worship and neighborhood stability in high–poverty urban areas of the U.S., Kinney and Winter (2006) point to a saying among urban activists: “the church is the last institution to go” in declining neighborhoods. A 2001 study by Cnaan, et al. found that 88 percent of 2,095 congregations they polled have at least one social program, with services covering “almost every facet of human need” but with particular attention to the plight of the poor. Cnaan, et al.’s (2006) study of Philadelphia looks specifically at the community–wide economic impact of urban sacred places, identifying not only the effects of direct investment but also the secondary positive effects accruing to community outreach efforts. Cnaan, et al. categorizes these as community development benefits — for example, access to shared space for cooperative and community–based start–ups and “invisible safety nets” created by the efforts of volunteers. These benefits often also extend beyond the churches’ role as religious institutions, through the historically grounded missions of faith–based community outreach practices. Additionally, in a study of the “halo effect,” or community–wide social support functions performed by congregations, Partners for Sacred Places (n.d.) and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice found that support was offered widely across communities; in fact, four out of five of those benefiting from outreach by faith–based organizations were not members of the congregations providing services: “in effect, sacred places serve as de facto neighborhood community centers.” This indicates that the social support missions of urban churches, in many cases, extend widely into their local areas.
Volunteer efforts, space–sharing, and other social support practices generally have a long tradition among historically African–American congregations, including African Methodist Episcopal; African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Christian Methodist Episcopal, Church of God in Christ, National Baptist Convention of America, National Baptist Convention USA, National Missionary Baptist Convention, and the Progressive National Baptist Convention (Dilulio, 1999). Scholars have also analyzed the networks of informal social support among African–American congregations, arguing that they are often the sole communal institution in many Black communities, functioning alongside extended family networks to offer vital social support to address a variety of issues (Chatters, et al., 2002).
Small’s 2006 study on neighborhood institutions, especially churches, as resource brokers in high poverty neighborhoods puts forth another vital function performed by these institutions: the cultivation of organizational ties, not merely social ones. Socially or linguistically isolated populations may find access to a network of resources (such as health, employment, or educational information) via faith–based organizations. This function is particularly important, as geospatial evidence shows that secular non–profits, even those specifically dedicated to anti–poverty work, often locate in areas with moderate concentrations of poverty instead of in the areas of most need, due to the presence of other networks and assets in the less destitute areas (Peck, 2008). These findings reinforce the conclusion that sacred places are often the sole source of social and organizational support in high–poverty urban locations, and point toward their increasing importance as unique assets with potential for community development benefits.
4. Detroit case studies — Building digital infrastructure via places of worship
As outlined above, churches in low–income urban areas with low broadband adoption make offer organizing efforts to create small–scale communications infrastructure in support of greater cohesion and opportunity. In particular, volunteering, space–sharing, social support, and institutional networking through churches all support the process of neighborhood–based build–out and related digital literacy and community–building efforts.
In Detroit, OTI works with an alliance of community groups dedicated to “digital justice” for underserved residents. This alliance, the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition (DDJC), includes many constituent groups with divergent missions: environmental justice (the East Michigan Environmental Action Council; the Sierra Club of Detroit); food justice (the Detroit Food Justice Task Force); media justice (the Allied Media Projects); and economic justice (the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization), among others. These groups see improved digital access among their constituents as serving the goals of their broader missions, and so leverage their institutional assets to facilitate and lead local communications infrastructure projects. OTI provides support, training, and equipment. The DDJC came together in 2010 to bring US$2 million in federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) funding to Detroit, and alongside its BTOP–funded digital training and adoption efforts, it has launched a handful of infrastructure projects across the city.
Following, we describe four Detroit wireless initiatives that leverage both the social and the physical situation of churches in the urban core. As all but one of these projects are ongoing, we are not able to evaluate outcomes for the social and built environments holistically, though the cases suggest some possible conclusions and directions for future work.
Case study 1: Central United Methodist Church and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization’s “Digital Billboard”
The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), a DDJC member organization, works out of the Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit. The Church is a centrally located, historic building. It is also adjacent to Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers baseball team’s home stadium. On game days, the church rents its parking lot to fans, making MWRO’s office inaccessible for visitors who arrive in cars. In November 2011, MWRO was forced to cancel a planned organizing session in order to accommodate a game. It was painful timing, as Michigan Governor Richard D. Snyder had just announced that the state was preparing to cut financial assistance to over 40,000 needy households in Detroit.
When the DDJC heard that the game was going to displace the workshop, it realized that using the church’s steeple and wireless technology, it could help MWRO’s message reach the 40,000 baseball fans in the stadium. Gwendolyn Gaines, an MWRO organizer, worked with other DDJC members to set up a router as a wireless access point in the United Methodist Church’s steeple. They put information about Governor Snyder’s announcement on a wireless “splash page,” so that it would appear in a browser window whenever a user joined the network. The message read:
Me Today, You Tomorrow — 40,000 welfare families cut off of cash assistance Oct 1st. Call Michigan Welfare Rights Organization if you or someone you love needs help: 313–964–0618. Join us Thursdays, noon to 1pm to protest attacks against children. — State Building — 3044 W. Grand Blvd at Cass. .
Thus the MWRO got its message out via the church, broadcasting it as a “digital billboard” appearing on the screen of every device connecting to the network. The DDJC and MWRO's action came at a time when the national media was using the success of Detroit’s sports teams as evidence of Detroit’s rebirth as a city, which belied the reality of a state ready to cut an economic lifeline to tens of thousands of local residents.
The DDJC had an opportunity to re–purpose this infrastructure weeks later, when a group of protesters launched an encampment under the Occupy Detroit banner in Grand Circus Park, just on the other side of Central United Methodist Church. Many DDJC members were interested in connecting the energy from the Occupy encampment to long–standing Detroit social support institutions. And, as in many such encampments, the occupiers expressed a desire for sustained Internet access in the public space they were occupying.
By borrowing bandwidth from MRWO and broadcasting it from the router in Central United Methodist’s steeple, the DDJC was able to turn its digital billboard into a useable Internet access point. The DDJC then helped Occupy Detroit participants set up a second router in the park, powered by a lamp post, in order to repeat and extend the signal. This allowed people in the park to connect to the network with low–power devices like laptops and smartphones, which would not otherwise be able to reach to the router in the MWRO office. MWRO saw this support as part of a larger effort to connect with the encampment; it also invited occupiers to events and hosted general assemblies in case of rain.
While this project had some limitations, including low bandwidth capacity from MWRO’s connection, it served as a demonstration of the potential of wireless technology to support partnerships among diverse groups that share interests. The physical structure of the church’s steeple, along with its role as a social support institution hosting grassroots organizations, allowed it to serve as a connection point among groups of people (baseball fans, community organizers, and protesters) using Detroit’s downtown for very different purposes. Further, the wireless connection allowed for demonstrations of political will in physical space, both at the Occupy Detroit encampment and in protests against austerity measures. Finally, this case is noteworthy in that it used digital tools to draw attention to a local issue and to the work of a local grassroots organization, rather than drawing attention away from the local and towards a global context.
The church itself functioned as a physical support for the network infrastructure and a social support for the MWRO through its space–sharing practice; yet the leadership and the congregation of the church were not involved in this case. Nor did this infrastructure provide long–term digital access to nearby residents or otherwise contribute to an ongoing solution to digital injustice in the city.
Case study 2: The Cass Corridor Wireless Testbed
As opposed to the MWRO case, the Cass Corridor Wireless Testbed is an effort to create a long–term solution to digital access barriers in Detroit’s Midtown area. OTI and the DDJC began installing open access wireless nodes in the Cass Corridor neighborhood in 2011. Initial install points included a grassroots organization, local businesses such as a cafe and a hardware store, a private house, a few low–income housing sites, and two churches.
Figure 4: Map of the Cass Corridor Testbed; points indicate wireless nodes. The Commons (First Unitarian–Universalist Church) is near the top, at Cass Avenue and W. Forest Avenue by the Cass Café. Spirit of Hope is in the southwest at Grand River Avenue and Trombull Street.
The first church, “The Commons,” or the First Unitarian–Universalist Church of Detroit, functions as a home to many aligned grassroots organizations working on a range of social and environmental justice issues. In 2011, the congregation and trustees donated their historic building to this coalition of community–based organizations when the cost of upkeep became too much to bear (Gabriel, 2011). Yet it continues to be home to a congregation, and so functions as a social, physical, and spiritual community anchor in multiple ways. The Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Coalition (EMEAC), as managers of the shared common space in the church and members of the DDJC, agreed in 2012 to allow OTI to place a router in the church’s bell tower, where it ties together multiple lower–lying points in the Cass network (Interview with Diana Copeland, 18 August 2012).
The second church in the Cass Network is the Spirit of Hope, built in 1892, which sits at the intersection of three major thoroughfares. It also lies between the Cass Corridor and North Corktown, which hosts a functional community wireless network. The church’s location made it the perfect site to interconnect wireless networks in those two neighborhoods. As in other cases, the church’s physical and geographic suitability is complemented by its mission. As Spirit of Hope’s pastor Matthew Bode observes, “The wireless justice project is just very natural for us. First of all, it serves the community. Second of all, we’ve got the architecture to do it, and the structure to do it. And third, it reminds us that we are connected to one another, that there is no community that lives by itself in Detroit” (Interview with Matthew Bode, 22 May 2013).
Figure 5: The Spirit of Hope Church connects Cass Corridor and North Corktown networks.
Yet Cass Corridor residents have not yet been able to use the network as a viable service, and effects of the churches’ participation are as yet not clear. Currently, the network serves primarily as a testbed for OTI’s wireless software platform; while it is accessible from some points in the neighborhood, we have not conducted any outreach efforts nor designed the access points to be available from street level. In part, this is because we do not want people to become reliant on a network which may function irregularly as we test the technology.
Because the network is not widely in use, Pastor Matthew Bode has little to say about observable outcomes of hosting a wireless node at the Spirit of Hope: “The equipment is not noticeable. Having a wireless node in the bell tower hasn’t changed how I think of the space” (Interview with Matthew Bode, 22 May 2013). Yet he continues to believe that being part of the network is an important extension of the church’s mission:
Churches in their best moments are concerned about justice and access to resources. Any project, be it WiFi or digital or some other project that allows people to have more access to resources that can help them move up in their life, the church should be involved. (Interview with Matthew Bode, 22 May 2013)
Thus Bode is willing to donate bandwidth for use by the community via his church. While he says that he does have concerns about people using the Internet to access “adult sites and things like that,” he would not impose major restrictions on use, and instead believes that the priority is to create reliable access to Internet services for people in the community.
As the wireless platform becomes more stable and the DDJC is able to move coverage down to street level from the rooftops of the Cass Corridor, we anticipate that the role of both the Unitarian–Universalist Church/The Commons and the Spirit of Hope will become more observable in the community. Yet at this point, it is not possible to document or measure the physical effects of the network on the neighborhood, as only OTI and some DDJC members are aware of the extent and status of the network. In both cases, the access points are hidden within the church bell tower to conform with historic preservation building codes; only a few church and community leaders are aware of their presence.
However, community leaders such as Matthew Bode, EMEAC’s staff at The Commons, and local business owners hosting nodes are well–positioned to inform the public about the network and to leverage it for their own ends. Further, they have an investment and a stake in the future of the project. While the physical effects of the network are not yet discernible, these social network effects are clear and hold promise for future economic development. Potential future physical impact on the Cass Corridor neighborhood is possible, as is further interconnection across multiple neighborhoods.
Case study 3: Training local wireless facilitators in the Morningside neighborhood
OTI’s experiences in the Cass Corridor convinced us that, as outsiders to Detroit’s ecosystem, we would not be able to consistently manage the building of sustainable and functional community wireless networks as catalysts for community–building — that role had to be played by local residents. Since 2012, we have refocused our efforts in Detroit on training local organizers and technologists to build and maintain wireless networks in their own neighborhoods. We co–designed a program with the Allied Media Projects (AMP), a local organization and member of the DDJC which runs trainings specializing in media and technology. We have piloted the resulting Digital Stewards curriculum with AMP twice, once in the Fall of 2012 and again in the Spring of 2013. Currently, three groups of Digital Stewards graduates are planning and designing wireless networks in their neighborhoods across Detroit.
One of these groups has decided to focus on churches as the major anchors of its network. Monique Tate, a leader of the Morningside Digital Stewards group, says that the Stewards have already installed a node on one church of at least 10 in the neighborhood, and have approached four more. She says that the churches tend to see becoming wireless hosts as an extension of what they’re already doing in the neighborhood: “We have a common goal: to positively impact and improve the community and be a resource for support” (Interview with Monique Tate, 7 June 2013). Tate says that when she reaches out to churches she talks about the value and benefit of having Internet access and computer skills, for example, for employment and educational opportunities. She says that, like Pastor Matthew Bode at the Spirit of Hope Church, she shares with church leadership the belief that access to wireless services can change a neighborhood by creating a more connected community and increasing the network density of relationships.
Yet Tate also reports that the churches in Morningside have expressed multiple concerns about sharing their networks with neighbors due to both physical and virtual security risks. Any equipment that looks like it could potentially be sold or traded is vulnerable to theft; some churches have even experienced theft of copper pipes and wires. For this reason the Morningside Digital Stewards are not sharing the names or locations of the host churches in the neighborhood, and the hardware they install must be hidden inside bell towers, chimneys, or other structures. Further, Tate says that the churches have expressed concern about illicit uses on shared networks, though in general “they feel that the benefits outweigh the possibility of abuse — it’s more important that people can get a job or do schoolwork than that they might use the network to look at porn” (Interview with Monique Tate, 7 June 2013). To allay these concerns, however, the Morningside Digital Stewards have promised to eventually install monitoring software on the neighborhood network in order to keep track of what residents do on shared Internet connections.
The Morningside network in Detroit has the potential to become a fully sustainable, vibrant community network that leverages the physical and social roles of churches in under–resourced urban areas. Key to this potential is the disintermediation of OTI as a mediator in the process, replaced by the direct organizing force of neighborhood residents. Yet as this case also points out, the churches’ concerns over immoral or improper use of information resources could also have an effect on the range of available information. In addition, security concerns also limit the visibility of the churches’ role as facilitators and partners in this work.
In this case once again, it is too early to measure the impact of the network either on the physical space of the neighborhood or on the churches; only two nodes are up, and while they are useable as access points, only a few people know about them. The next phases in Morningside, as in the Cass Corridor, will include outreach to make residents aware of the new, intangible infrastructure in the neighborhood. Also as in the case of the Cass Corridor, the process of organizing the network through local institutions and business leaders has built a dense network of leaders with stakes in the network.
Case study 4: Working in a severely under–resourced environment
“48217,” an area of southwestern Detroit known by its postal code, has been largely cut off from city services. With only one school and no libraries, and coping with disinvestment and a lack of resources generally, the area has few traditional anchor institutions. Yet it has a strong network of church leaders who meet monthly to discuss and support outreach, volunteering, and community development efforts. Participation in these forums has created the opportunity for OTI and our community partners in the DDJC to work with churches to establish initial sharing points for a community network in the area, where Internet subscription rates fell from 21–40 percent in 2009 to 0–20 percent in 2010. 48217 is home to a number of churches (the tallest structures in the area) as well as informal community resource brokers and anchors. In March 2012, OTI met with a group of church leaders in the area to build support for wireless sharing.
Figure 6: OTI flyer distributed in May 2012 to church leaders in southwest Detroit.
In September 2012, OTI and the DDJC installed a wireless router at Pine Grove Baptist Church in 48217 to deliver Internet access wirelessly to the nearby Kemeny Recreation Center. Kemeny, one of the sole remaining community resources in the neighborhood following major disinvestment by the city, hosts a lending library and a computer lab, and serves as central point for organizing and volunteer efforts. However, due to slow speeds on Pine Grove’s Internet connection, the link to Kemeny was never useable by residents. Overall, OTI’s efforts in 48217 have been slow to bear fruit. Despite the general willingness of church leaders to participate in Internet sharing, resources and time have been lacking within that community, and OTI has concentrated instead on the Cass Corridor network as well as on the Digital Stewards training program, in which a handful of 48217 residents have taken part.
48217 is a stark example of the pattern that we have seen with other Detroit efforts, in which there is organizing will and leadership for wireless projects, but resources are lacking. The network is even more ephemeral here than in the Cass Corridor or Morningside — the equipment is there, but generally not operational. In this case, it is not clear that even the churches have sufficient bandwidth to serve as community network anchors.
The case studies above illustrate some evolving complications in our church–based model of information sharing for universal access to information services. While church–based networks do show potential for space sharing among organizations with shared goals, interconnection among neighborhoods, provision of Internet access, and organizing, there are also drawbacks to churches acting as brokers of information resources. Churches are not bound by public interest obligations, nor by politically determined rights like freedom of speech and expression. They may choose to monitor network traffic, trace the behaviors of specific individuals, and to screen the types of information that are available over their networks. Because the abdication of public–interest policy reform for Internet provision by the public sector has left these determinations to non–state actors and institutions, the result may easily be uneven access or censorship at the discretion of businesses, churches, and whoever chooses to participate in Internet sharing.
Additionally, we have found that churches in the networks we have built or supported are often silent partners. Thus, although they may be playing an essential role in supplying Internet to underserved communities, that role may be invisible. At the Spirit of Hope and the Commons, wireless equipment is hidden inside a the bell tower in order to conform to historic preservation guidelines; in Morningside, the devices are hidden due to concerns about physical security. Since multiple institutions and households share bandwidth across these networks, it is impossible to tell where the signal originates. Churches may still play a role in supplying digital trainings, or reach out to their communities using digital tools, but the precise nature of the impact of wireless sharing on surrounding communities will often be diffuse and hard to measure. Further, the exercise of control in the form of mediation or censorship of information practiced by churches may also be invisible to residents using these networks. Such control could easily extend to political or social issues in which churches have a stake.
The cases we have laid out here also demonstrate the difficulties of organizing at the neighborhood or community scale from a geographically remote location. The Cass Corridor and 48217 networks, both initiated remotely by OTI, await local leadership before residents perceive community–wide impact. Additionally, the length of time necessary to create visible or measurable effects of both organizing efforts and infrastructure build–out is a challenge in measuring the effects of this work. MWRO and Morningside both demonstrate greater local impact than the Cass Corridor or 48217 networks as locally–led initiatives, yet MWRO was a temporary effort and the Morningside network is still in early stages after several months of hard work. Impact assessment may not be possible for another six months to a year.
Overall, the relationship between wireless networks and their built environments presents difficulties for impact measurement. We have shown that the physical and social characteristics of urban churches make them ideal sites for wireless infrastructure — and that churches tend to see Internet sharing as aligned with their missions — yet without further evaluation conducted after effects become perceptible, it is hard to say what effect the presence of the infrastructure actually has on the churches and on their surrounding physical communities. However, organizing at the neighborhood level for network build–out has had a perceptible effect on the social infrastructure of connections among institutions and leaders, including churches and aligned social support groups.
We have demonstrated that access to the Internet is a vital resource in low supply in low–income urban communities in the U.S., and that the community development and relationship–building potentials of Internet connectivity align strategically with the historical and present–day outreach and social service missions of urban, faith–based institutions. We have further demonstrated the confluence of these factors in Detroit, and we posit that, based on the general demographic and environmental patterns around both Internet adoption rates and built–environment features in older American cities, the model of church–based Internet sharing could have much wider application.
It is essential to note, however, that the need for such grassroots solutions to the lack of digital access has emerged from a troubling set of policy priorities and the abdication of urban planners and city, state, and federal officials from any responsibility to ensure the equitable distribution of Internet connectivity as a utility. In addition, with increasing disinvestment from government social support programs due to the political and economic climate in the U.S., the ecumenical community — as the sole remaining social safety net in many areas — is pressed to fill in social support gaps for multiple needs. We do not intend either to release government authorities from their responsibility to ensure the equitable distribution of resources in the public interest, nor to place another burden on the capacity of already stretched faith–based communities.
Yet overall, we believe that communication is a fundamental human right, and is interrelated with the ability to access food, shelter, and housing. As the role of digital communications becomes ever more fundamental to participation in our economic and civil spheres, it is incumbent on the public sector to ensure access. The church–based solution we advocate in this paper is a model that shows promise for neighborhoods that that cannot wait for corporate investment or a public sector response to address digital inequities. We hope in the future to be able to adapt the model for efficient and low–cost community technology solutions in an environment where such solutions are supported by both public and private partners, not only in the absence of such support.
Finally, we recognize that this research represents a midpoint between field observation and academic analysis. We see its contribution as the elucidation of an existing pattern that we have found in our spheres of operation. However, we have not yet expanded this analysis to other urban areas, nor to places of worship beyond churches. We hope that future research will investigate these factors, as well as further examining the character of alignment (or possible misalignment) between the goals of civic and social support work and the ecumenical missions of religious and other institutions. As the technologies supporting Internet sharing become easier to use, and the skills to leverage them more widely distributed, we hope there will be numerable locally–led case studies through which to examine the role of churches and other community anchors as digital resources for their neighborhoods.
About the authors
Greta Byrum (gretabyrum.com) is a Senior Field Analyst for the Open Technology Initiative at New America Foundation, where she works on telecommunications policy, collaborative technology design strategies, and geospatial analysis. She received her M.S. in Urban Planning from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
E–mail: byrum [at] newamerica [dot] net
Joshua Breitbart is the Director of Field Operations for the Open Technology Institute at New America Foundation.
E–mail: breitbart [at] newamerica [dot] net
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Received 20 October 2013; accepted 27 October 2013.
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–NonCommercial–ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
Wireless organizing in Detroit: Churches as networked sites in under–resourced urban areas
by Greta Byrum and Joshua Breitbart.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 11 - 4 November 2013