The White House

A White House initiative to bring broadband to low-income students could help free up community-based services everywhere.

The Internet, it might be said, is a web of new languages: Source codes, slang words, memes, and more. These discourses are rapidly evolving.

But in the U.S. alone, there are millions who’ve scarcely had the chance at basic Internet literacy. This is largely a class divide: Out of the 20 percent of Americans who do not use the Internet, four out of five live below the poverty line. Children living in low-income households are particularly affected, as they lack the benefits that technology provides to their after-school studies.

There’s much more than emoji at stake: How do you improve educational outcomes or odds of quality employment for disadvantaged households when they lack something so basic as a web connection?

The White House announced Wednesday one new effort to close the digital divide: ConnectHome, an initiative to expand broadband access for low-income families, especially K-12 students living public housing, in 27 cities and one tribal nation.

Working with local governments, private Internet providers, non-profits, and even businesses like Best Buy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will help bring more than 275,000 low-income households—with almost 200,000 K-12 children—online. Those households will be eligible for Internet connections or broadband hookups for free or for as little as $9.95 a month, and they’ll get help doing it. The New York Times reports:

In Macon, Ga., the program will offer residents the chance to buy tablets already loaded with educational software for $30 each. Other communities will receive free help with SAT preparation and free technical support. Google Fiber will offer free Internet connections to some public housing residents in Atlanta; Durham, N.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Nashville.

It’s the latest in Obama’s push for high-speed broadband access nationwide. In his State of the Union address last January, he cited broadband as an essential piece of “21st-century infrastructure,” and has since been vocal on his policy stance: That community-based broadband networks can provide healthy competition to oft-monopolizing private providers, and help with greater adoption overall.   

Many municipalities have taken the lead on building out broadband infrastructure—New York City is a notable example. But others find themselves red-taped by state laws that prevent the expansion of a municipal broadband provider. In many cases, those laws were pushed by private Internet providers trying to tamp out competition. It’s a considerable issue that ConnectHome doesn’t directly address. Nor does it account for the swathes of poor, rural America that aren’t online, particularly in the South.

But in its 27 cities, many of which have already committed to broadband, ConnectHome could show what can happen when access is expanded to a lot of kids who really need it. And that, in turn, could help strengthen the case for lifting limits on community-based, high-speed Internet service everywhere else.

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