Want to Close the Digital Divide? For Cities, Partnerships Are Key

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In New York, the Bronx city government was able to provide 5,000 families living in public housing with tablets and internet service. Here’s how they did it.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (center), along with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (left) and Terry Hayes, Senior Vice President, Northeast Region, T-Mobile, gather in December 2016 to celebrate the work to connect 5,000 families living in public housing in the Bronx with tablets and internet service. (photo: EveryoneOn)

This is a guest post by Chike Aguh.

In New York City, approximately 20 percent of households currently don’t have the internet at home and have no mobile internet options. In the Bronx, it is a staggering 26 percent of households. The majority of the unconnected are minority and poor.

At EveryoneOn, we have seen this time and time again: low-income individuals yearning for a connection to the digital world but not being able to find a way to afford it. Luckily, cities are meeting this call and implementing public-private partnership solutions.

For example, in 2016, the Bronx city government worked with T-Mobile to provide 5,000 families living in public housing with tablets and internet service. It was a $2 million investment, and part of a larger $10 million commitment by the New York City government to bring affordable internet access to all of New York City by 2025.

“Increasing internet access across the city is not just a noble goal – it’s a necessary one. These days, the internet is virtually a requirement for people searching for jobs or students doing homework,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Along with free Wi-Fi internet through T-Mobile networks, the 5,000 residents were given tablets loaded with applications and links to city services. In addition, residents were offered information sessions on how to use the tablets. By combining these efforts with digital literacy training from the New York Public Library’s Bronx branches, residents now have access to the three-legged stool of digital inclusion: affordable internet access, a device on which to access the internet, and training on how to use both.

During the launch, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro highlighted HUD’s innovative ConnectHome program, which connects residents in HUD-assisted housing, and praised New York City’s commitment to digital inclusion efforts.

“The ConnectHome program is providing children and families with the tools they need to stay competitive in this 21st century global economy,” said Castro in a news release. “With this new commitment to ConnectHome, T-Mobile and the city of New York are making a meaningful impact to close the digital divide for thousands of New York public housing residents.”

While the Bronx and New York City – along with other cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, Missouri, and Charlotte, North Carolina – have helped close the digital divide, the United States as a whole still has a long way to go in making sure that all people have access to the life-altering power of the internet. According to the American Community Survey, more than 60 million people are currently living on the wrong side of the digital divide. This divide affects both rural and urban residents, but disproportionately those that are poor and minority.

This lack of access and use of the internet impacts almost every aspect of daily lives. For example, Pew Research has found that approximately 80 percent of students need the internet to complete their homework, and that the vast majority of people have used the internet to research and apply for jobs. If you have the internet at home, high school graduation is more likely, which can lead to $2 million more in lifetime earnings.

These are just a few of the numbers that can be improved if we work together to connect people to the internet at home. At EveryoneOn, we have worked since 2012 to help connect people to the social and economic opportunities provided by the internet. So far, we have connected more than 400,000 people in the United States, with the goal of connecting one million people by 2020.

We believe that partnerships are a way for all cities to meet the digital needs of their residents. For cities and communities, support of digital inclusion efforts through community planning, public-private partnerships and monetary investments are substantial ways to help the unconnected enter the digital on-ramp. By working together, the goal of ending this digital divide is attainable. The digital inclusion needle can be moved with just a little push.

About the author: Chike Aguh is the chief executive officer of EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that creates social and economic opportunity by connecting everyone to the internet. EveryoneOn serves as the nonprofit lead of HUD’s ConnectHome program. Follow Chike on Twitter @CRAguh or EveryoneOn @Everyone_On.