Acquiring and sustaining high-speed Internet access can be difficult and cost prohibitive in remote and low-income areas. In such communities, innovation and additional funding are often essential. Two non-profit agencies are using the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant funding from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) to fund innovative ways to assist communities in Ohio, New York, and California.
The Appalachian Center for Collaborative and Engaged Learning (ACCEL) is a community-based non-profit agency in Ohio that uses technology to try to improve the lives of citizens. ACCEL is one of six lead community agencies implementing the Connect to Your Community campaign, a computer-training program for social and economic advancement funded by an 18 million BTOP grant from the NTIA.
One of the project’s goals is to help trainees obtain a relatively inexpensive broadband connection at home or in a community center. As Project Coordinator Jason Schroeder explained,
It doesn’t do any good to sign up for a broadband plan you just can’t afford. That is not sustainable."
He believes that in order to truly achieve sustainability, community members would still have broadband access a year or more into the future.
As part of its efforts to increase broadband access, the project has created new lab spaces in two counties with 10 computers in each lab. As Mr. Shroeder explained, "Ten [computers] doesn’t sound like a lot, but in these smaller rural communities, 10 computers really go a long way." Because the grant allowed for a per-household stipend for broadband connectivity, he will also work with local housing authorities to identify spaces and establish labs for residents’ use.
In addition, the project will offer free computer workshops that include information on broadband access. Schroeder explained that the project helps people "make sense of what all the options are, and get them set up [with] an affordable connection." He explained that the number one reason barring people from access is cost.
Mr. Schroeder believes that another way to support sustainability is to partner with community members who are savvy about the Internet, have more resources at their disposal, and will champion the cause for their neighbors. He shared an example of a man so eager for access that he called up an ISP provider and paid to get a Broadband pole and antenna set up near his home. Mr. Schroeder added that if the ISP agreed, such community Broadband champions could set up a mesh network and invite other community members with fewer resources to use the service.
Computers for Youth (CFY) is a national educational non-profit organization that strives to help low-income children fare better in school by improving their learning environment at home. In 2010, The U.S. Commerce Department awarded two grants to CFY totaling $23 million. The grants will be used to improve the home learning environment and increase broadband adoption in the two largest school districts in the United States: New York City and Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, CFY is the prime recipient of the funds, and it partners with the New York City Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the New York City Department of Education.
According to Mark Malaspina, Chief Officer of Operations and Strategic Partnerships, the grant programs will help "engage families directly with the educational value of the Internet." In both New York City and Los Angeles, the project began with a competitive selection process in high poverty middle schools to choose campuses. Teachers and families of participating campuses can participate in the project’s intensive workshops. But staff also set up and provide guidance about a “Home Learning Center” in families’ homes, which consists of a broadband enabled desktop computer with pre-loaded educational software.
At the onset of the project, program staff surveyed families to gauge their attitudes about broadband adoption, and they plan to follow up with a sample of participating parents throughout the course of the program. In New York City, staff negotiated agreements with two broadband providers to provide access at significantly discounted monthly rates (e.g., less than $15 a month).
Since sustainability is a major goal of the project, the project has established 24-hour, bilingual technical support. Participating families in both Los Angeles and San Francisco can call the toll-free number for assistance with their Home Learning Center computers. Families also receive information on how to keep their computers updated, and can swap their computer for a new one should serious problems arise.
Affordable, sustainable broadband connectivity is challenging in remote and low-income communities. But with funding and innovation, progress can be made. ACCEL has already reached out to ten rural locations in three different counties. And CFY will serve more than 33,000 families in New York City and Los Angeles by February 2013.
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