Billion-dollar initiative may bridge 'digital divide'

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A government initiative could transform the lives of millions of African-Americans who do not have computers at home or access to broadband.

The Federal Communications Commission’s $4 billion program is a stepped-up effort to bridge the “digital divide” between people who have access to technology and low-income Americans who cannot afford this luxury.

Those that are eligible will pay $10 a month for broadband Internet access at 1 megabit per second and $150 for a refurbished laptop, along with applications that include digital literacy training.

The FCC is billing the public-private initiative as the biggest effort ever to help close the divide.

Overall, the U.S. ranks 18th worldwide in the number of households with high-speed Internet access, according to the World Economic Forum.

The percentage of Americans who use broadband at home rose to 68 percent last year, but “a persistent digital divide” continues in rural communities and especially among low-income African-American and Hispanics, says a report from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

This lack of connectedness to technology is a major stumbling block in the job search process for the 100 million people who do not have broadband access at home.

Online competence is now the expected norm, with at least 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies, such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp., requiring that job applications be submitted online.

That puts more than half of low-income families and more than half of black and Hispanic families at a major disadvantage because they don’t have high-speed Internet access.

Karen Moran of Focus:HOPE, a Detroit-based non-profit organization that provides education and training to predominately low-income African-Americans, says for people who don’t have the Internet it opens so many doors, “people are amazed and excited about the possibilities.”

Since 2010, Focus: HOPE has been running a broadband Internet training scheme for beginners. Participants are encouraged to stay online with offers of free or heavily discounted PC’s or laptops. They are also given help accessing affordable Internet services or no-cost broadband for a limited period, with the help of funding.

“If you are looking for a job without the Internet you are at a major disadvantage,” and this holds back low-income minorities and other disadvantaged groups, says Moran.

She concedes training is not just about gaining employment because broadband access improves the overall quality of life. “If you are diagnosed with say something like diabetics you can access health information by doing your research as well as going to the doctor,” says Moran. “Schools in the area want to communicate with parents by sending out newsletters or updates online. It gives people access to resources and helps them keep in touch and stay connected.”

At 93, Estelle Stanley is enrolled in a Focus: HOPE training class along with her daughter, Gwendolyn Davis, 74.

Stanley is hoping to get one of the laptops donated by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan so she can start emailing her sister in San Diego. “I like to keep busy and learn new things,” she says. “I’m interested in learning whatever I can. It keeps me going.”

Her daughter Davis has a little more experience working on the computer, but wants to learn more so that she can write business letters and do her taxes online.

James Hartnett, a general manager of New Horizons, a computer learning center based in Greater Atlanta, says understanding how to use the computers empowers people to get jobs and move forward in their careers.

He cites the example of a young woman who had been unemployed for two years. She completed certified IT courses, including Cisco, at Horizons “and she now has a 60K job with a leading technology firm in Atlanta,” says Hartnett.

Duane Toler, a Software Systems Engineer based in Atlanta, has over 30 years’ experience working for Information Technology firms in the US. He credits the new FFC initiative but has some reservations about how effective the scheme will be in poor rural areas in Southern Georgia.

Toler, who has experience of IT projects requiring regular visits to the rural south, says 1 megabit is a “respectable speed” but questions whether some areas in Georgia have the physical infrastructure to carry broadband services.

But he says if these infrastructural problems can be overcome high speed Internet access in places like Southern Georgia could transform the local economy. “Broadband could attract companies that are considering a move or expansion,” he says.

“What people don’t realize is there is a lot of fear and ignorance surrounding computers in the poorest neighborhoods” says Toler. There probably needs to be an advertising campaign to persuade people to depart with $150 dollars and $10 a month, because right now for some that is a lot of money, he adds.