By Colin Wood
On July 15, the White House announced its newest commitment to the future of America’s digital infrastructure. A pilot program called ConnectHome will spur broadband Internet equity programs in 28 communities across the nation. ConnectHome is expected to initially reach more than 275,000 households and 200,000 children in the form of increased broadband access, technical training and digital devices.
The pilot is a response to the nation’s digital divide, exemplified by new survey data (PDF) showing that low-income children in particular tend to lack access to computers or a broadband connection. ConnectHome is an extension of ConnectED, President Obama’s pledge to connect 99 percent of America’s K-12 students to high-speed Internet in the classroom within the next five years. ConnectHome is intended to extend the spirit of the school broadband program to the home for low-income Americans.
The program is facilitated by a partnership between the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), EveryoneOn and US Ignite, which will work with local organizations to increase access to broadband in myriad ways.
Twenty-eight communities are participating in the program so far, including: Albany, Ga.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, La.; Boston; Camden, N.J.; Choctaw Nation, Okla.; Cleveland, Ohio; Denver; Durham, N.C.; Fresno, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Los Angeles; Macon, Ga.; Memphis, Tenn.; Meriden, Conn.; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans; New York City; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Rockford, Ill.; San Antonio, Texas; Seattle; Springfield, Mass.; Tampa, Fla.; and Washington, D.C.
Seattle CIO Michael Mattmiller said he’s excited to be a part of the initiative because closing the digital divide is an important issue — and one that Seattle government especially treasures.
“ConnectHome is important because the Internet has become so essential to our lives. Being part of our digital society, to help with financial opportunities, to find employment, or in this case what they’re especially focused on is education,” Mattmiller said. “Here in Seattle, we know that 15 percent of households do not have Internet access at home, and that equates to about 93,000 residents. So through the ConnectHome program, HUD is very focused on making sure residents within housing authority facilities get that Internet access.”
In Seattle, increasing access to broadband through the new initiative will take several forms, Mattmiller explained. New buildings to be constructed through the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) will adopt new standards created by HUD to ensure that tenants aren’t blocked from gaining access due to a lack of wiring.
Local broadband providers have also partnered on the initative to offer discounts on service to low-income facilities.
“Here in Seattle, CenturyLink announced they will be offering low-income Internet access in HUD facilities and to those with low incomes across the city,” Mattmiller said. “It’s a great way we can start to chip away at that digital divide that’s present in our community.”
CenturyLink will, according to the White House, offer broadband service to HUD households for Internet access at $9.95 per month the first year, and $14.95 per month the following four years.
For Seattle, ConnectHome is a natural extension of the digital equity work that’s been happening for years, Mattmiller said. Since 1998, the city has awarded more than $3.4 million in grant funding to more than 200 community organizations for that cause.
Across the nation, eight service providers have partnered on the initiative to offer low-income broadband pricing, including Google Fiber, Cherokee Communications, Pine Telephone, Suddenlink Communications, Vyve Broadband, Cox Communications, Sprint and CenturyLink.
Digital skills training will also be offered to HUD households through program partnerships with Best Buy, James M. Cox Foundation, GitHub, College Board, Khan Academy, 80/20 Foundation, Age of Learning, Inc., Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the American Library Association, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, and Oklahoma's Durant Independent School District. Each partner is offering funding, services or both to low-income residents.
ConnectHome also modifies stipulations of Choice Neighborhood Implementation Grants to allow some funding to be used on local broadband initiatives, including $150 million on the current round of funding.
The program will also support regions the White House has dubbed Promise Zones — the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma; Camden, N.J.; Los Angeles; Philadelphia; and San Antonio, Texas — where the federal government and the Obama administration work through the Legislature and directly with community leaders to meet local educational and economic goals.
Joanne Hovis, president of CTC Technology & Energy, said ConnectHome is incredibly important and backed by historical precedent.
“Part of what’s great about this program is it’s a tested model,” Hovis said. “Probably 10 years ago, the city of San Francisco pioneered the model of delivering high-capacity broadband to public housing projects, and did so in a partnership with a private company that put in wireless equipment. The city then provided the fiber backhaul directly to the housing facility. And that program succeeded at getting extremely high bandwidth services at no cost to residents of San Francisco who couldn’t otherwise access them.”