Low-Income Chicago Students to Get Low-Cost Broadband
By Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, June 1, 2011
The digital divide that has left nearly 40 percent of all Chicagoans with little or no access to the Internet is about to narrow for 330,000 needy students.
On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel joined Comcast in announcing, “Internet Essentials,” a first-in-the-nation program designed to provide high-speed Internet services for the families of Chicago Public School students who qualify for free school lunches.
Comcast normally charges $48.95-a-month for broadband Internet service. Under the new program, eligible families will be able to get that service for $9.95-a-month with no installation or service fees.
In addition, eligible families will get technology training and a coupon to purchase mostly refurbished computers valued at up to $500 for $150. The program will launch with the start of the next school year and continue for at least three years.
The partnership with Comcast is one piece of a comprehensive plan to increase Internet access in inner-city Chicago neighborhoods.
“This will ensure that every part of this city has a chance to grow in the new economy. And Chicago will lead the country in dealing with this economic and social divide issue,” Emanuel told a news conference at the Woodson Regional Library, 9525 S. Halsted.
“If a parent signs up a child at kindergarten or first-grade, Comcast will stay with that child all the way through to high school and that access. It’s a tremendous investment that no other city is gonna experience. ... But, at the end of the day, the parent has to do one thing that no other program can do: Show initiative. Be the parent.”
Comcast Executive Vice-President David Cohen cited three primary causes for the digital divide: cost, fear of the Internet and a lack of understanding about the relevance of technology. The new program addresses all three.
“So many of us take Internet access for granted. ... I wish that were true for every household in Chicago, but it’s not. ... Other communities enjoy broadband adoption rates that are two- and three- and four-times the adoption rates in Washington Heights and Roseland. … That’s just not fair,” Cohen said.
“We want to mirror what’s available in wealthier communities ... by pairing broadband access in the home with broadband access in libraries and in schools so that all kids — regardless of the neighborhoods where they live — have the same access and capacity to work on the Internet for their school work, for their career search, for their entertainment, for their health care needs, for their ability to access government programs, for their e-mail and communication needs.”
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley tried to bridge the digital divide, only to hit a roadblock.
Four years ago, rising costs, declining demand and increased competition from private Internet providers killed Daley’s ambitious plan to build a wireless Internet access system attached to streetlights and lamp poles.
Instead, Daley designated five impoverished Chicago communities as “digital excellence demonstration communities.”
The plan to flood Englewood, Auburn-Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Pilsen and Humboldt Park with technology was hailed by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski as model for the nation.
The plan also proposed wireless internet access along a 26-block stretch of 63rd Street, free refurbished computers as an incentive to complete technology training, Family NetCenters and Community Craigslists to support local businesses.
This story was originally published on June 1, 2011 by the Chicago Sun-Times.