Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bringing Broadband to the Urban Poor

Bringing Broadband to the Urban Poor

Anthony Celestine was a latecomer to the Internet Age. The 40-year-old Harlem resident has owned a small Jani-King commercial cleaning franchise since 2004, but until recently, the New Yorker hadn't owned a computer or even surfed the Web or had an e-mail address. "I didn't know what none of that stuff was," he says.

Now he uses the Internet all the time to scout out new customers, communicate with Jani-King headquarters in Dallas, and trade e-mails with fellow franchisees on how to do certain kinds of jobs better. "I talk to my franchise brothers about what works and what doesn't," says Celestine, "I'm learning about new procedures faster than before. It's like riding a bike and then switching to a car. It's just a whole better world with the PC."

Celestine entered that world earlier this year when he moved from Brooklyn to an apartment in Harlem and got a PC and a high-speed Web hookup as part of his rental agreement. Celestine's apartment is owned by Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement (HCCI), a 22-year-old, $240 million nonprofit community development organization based in Harlem's Bradhurst neighborhood. HCCI was able to provide the computer and Internet connection thanks to the efforts of other nonprofit groups and an organization that funds affordable housing projects.

The Broadband Have-Nots

Millions of Americans—many of them also residents of the inner city—remain on the other side of the chasm that separates those who have high-speed Internet access from those who don't. President-elect Barack Obama has taken to delivering a weekly address not only over the radio but also through videos on Google's (GOOG) YouTube. Yet almost half of U.S. adults don't have the necessary broadband connections that make it easy to view those messages, according to recent data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. A survey by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation ranked the U.S. 15th on household broadband penetration, having slipped from fourth place in 2001, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. (Denmark ranked No. 1.)

In a Dec. 6 speech, Obama called the current state of U.S. broadband access "unacceptable" and said plans to "renew our Information Superhighway" would be a priority of his Administration. To deliver, Obama will need to address the wide swaths of the U.S. that remain unconnected. In some places—most of them rural areas with low population density—people who are willing to pay for service can't get it because telecom providers can't justify the necessary investment.

In the case of the urban poor, service may be readily available, but many families can't afford the $30 to $50 it costs each month to get broadband. Many also lack computers at home. Among households with an annual income of $50,000 or less—about half the country—only 35% have broadband service, according to Free Press, a technology advocacy group. Households with annual incomes above $50,000 are more than twice as likely to have broadband service.

A Nonprofit Policy Leader

Telecommunications companies have made some efforts to make broadband affordable. AT&T (T), the largest U.S. phone company, offers DSL access for $10 a month to new customers in 22 states, a condition for government approval of the 2006 merger between SBC and BellSouth that created AT&T. In another concession to Uncle Sam in exchange for merger approval, AT&T agreed to donate 50,000 DSL lines to low-income households. Verizon Communications (VZ) has a subsidiary called Verizon Enhanced Communities that works with developers and apartment building owners to make high-speed connections available in low-income and other housing complexes.

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