EarthLink Spearheads Chicago 'Digital Inclusion' Project
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Thanks to a new collaborative "digital inclusion" project launched earlier this month in Chicago, some of that city's 10,000 school-aged homeless children will have greater access to computers and broadband Internet service. The EarthLink Digital Future Program, which will put small computer labs complete with free Wi-Fi (and a laser printer) into 17 of Chicago's homeless shelters, is intended to help bridge the ever-widening gap between the city's "haves" and "have-nots."
The wireless Internet access at the centers will be provided by EarthLink, which has partnered with Blackwell Consulting Services, Computers For Schools, and the Chicago Public Schools' Homeless Education Department to bring its vision to fruition.
"We really wanted to do something with the schools," says Cole Reinwand, EarthLink's VP of Product Strategy and Marketing. "The programs EarthLink will be running will have long-term benefits, in terms of keeping kids in school, increasing performance, and creating a more educated workforce."
The first lab was unveiled on March 1, 2007 at the Featherfist Homeless Children's Center.
"We've launched one center and are busy building the other 16," says Reinwand. "The response from folks in the shelter was astounding. One woman had to travel an hour each way to go use a computer at a library and was struggling about what to do with her kids while she was out looking for her job. She was praising God and crying tears. That's the type of impact we're looking at in these programs."
In addition to hardware and Wi-Fi, the Digital Future program also addresses the need for basic computer training. With an approach it calls "T.E.A.C.H.," EarthLink hopes to offer access not just to technology, but to the training necessary to put that technology to use.
"It's generally recognized that you can't just give affordable access; there's a significant amount of training that needs to go with it," says Reinwand. "Someone who's never used a computer before may not necessarily even know how to turn it on. T.E.A.C.H. stands for Training, Education, Access, Content and Hardware."
Hardware, says Reinwand, is the most challenging aspect of the problem. "We've partnered with different entities to distribute refurbished computers," he says. "We're really relying on national foundations to try to help us. We're trying to get money from organizations, like the Bill Gates Foundation, that are really well-endowed, that have money to direct to these types of initiatives. We are creating an ecosystem of partners in each category. EarthLink is 'Access,' but we bring together players in each area to encompass all five areas. We believe it has to be a complete solution."
Wi-Fi is an essential part of any plan to bring affordable broadband access to the masses, says Reinwand.
"Wi-Fi has the capability to provide low-cost access in cities," he says. "Currently, broadband is divided between the local cable and local telephone company; there's not enough competition, so not everyone can afford access. With Wi-Fi coming in, and the business model that EarthLink is running, any ISP can offer low-cost access."
"Plus, there's scalability," he says. "The incumbents have been involved in these red line activities, so they are only building out to affluent neighborhoods. Other people have no option other than dial-up. Wireless doesn't require us to deploy any new infrastructure, which helps to solve the availability issue."
The Chicago initiative is not EarthLink's first foray into the world of digital inclusion programs. In other cities -- the ones where EarthLink was selected to provide municipal Wi-Fi access -- other projects are underway. In Philadelphia, for instance, the focus is on providing 25,000 subsidized accounts to bring affordable access to low-income residents. In Anaheim, California, the Mayor's Tech Scholars program gives kids who win an essay contest computers and two years of free Internet access to take away to college.
"We have programs in pretty much every city where we're operating," says Reinwand. "Right now, we're finalizing a contract with Houston, and it has a significant digital inclusion program. We'll be providing 40-50,000 subsidized accounts for use with $1-2 million worth of cash and services to support training and content and hardware programs. In San Francisco, we're offering subsidized accounts for hardware and training. With our partner Google, we'll be creating a citywide free tier of access available to anyone in the city to use. Free access citywide is a legacy for us. We realize access only solves one part of the equation, so we have tended to try for a more comprehensive solution. Just providing access isn't solving the problem with the low-income households."
Is it a coincidence that the announcement of this Digital Future Program in Chicago comes just after the city closed its RFP and began weighing the contenders for its own muni wireless network?
"This was an opportunity that presented itself based on our activity there when we were preparing our bid for the city," says Reinwand. "EarthLink submitted a proposal. The city appears to be moving onto the next stages. We are now responding to follow-up questions. We have no idea when they'll announce. We're hoping that it moves quickly."