Friday, September 23, 2011

Bridging the Digital Divide in New York City

"Broadband access is increasingly a requirement of socio-economic inclusion, not an outcome of it."  

The recent announcement of Comcast's Internet Essentials program -- providing low-cost computers, Internet service, and digital literacy training to families who qualify for free lunches at public schools -- started us wondering what affordable options exist for New York City's young people.

The "digital divide" -- discrepancies in who has high speed Internet connections (generally defined as greater than 10 megabit-per-second download capacity) and the knowledge to effectively use digital tools -- remains a significant problem in the United States.  Fast and convenient access to the vast resources of the Internet -- the employment listings and job applications, health information, government benefits, education resources, financial and communication tools, lower cost retail options, up-to-the-minute news, and a thousand other uses -- ease daily tasks and contribute to economic progress. 

Hard numbers on broadband usage in New York City are difficult to find, but the Pew Research Center last year found that nearly 90% of households nationally with earnings of over $75,000 had broadband access in the home, compared to less than 40% of households earning under $30,000.  The situation is especially difficult for minorities, who are statistically more likely to use their cell phones to access the Internet; the devices' small size makes them more suited to entertainment and casual communication than, for example, filling out an online job application.

Comcast's service area does not include New York City, so Gotham residents are not eligible for the Internet Essentials program.  Unfortunately, the city's recently renewed franchise agreement with Time-Warner Cable and Cablevision, which gives the two companies exclusive rights to provide cable service through 2020, does not mandate a subsidized residential service.  It does, however, include an estimated $60 million worth of public benefits such as:

  • Creation of 40 public computing centers across the city to provide free broadband access to low-income communities
  • Free commercial-grade Internet service to all public libraries in Cablevision’s service area
  • Wi-Fi capabilities in 32 parks that includes 30 minutes per month free for all users with a 99 cent per day fee thereafter

Such shared facilities, however, rarely have the capacity to provide extended computer time to each patron, limiting their usefulness.

The NYC Connected Learning project is using over $20 million of federal money to provide computer training, desktop computers, educational software, and free broadband access for one year to more than 18,000 low-income sixth-graders and their families in 100 high-need public middle schools.   Non-profits like CFY and Per Scholas have a primary mission to bring technology to low-income individuals, while scores of other organizations and libraries provide at least some no-cost computer training.  And, of course, TechSoup connects qualified non-profits with technology information and deeply discounted software.

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