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Working To Bridge the Digital Divide

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Fall 2016   


Working To Bridge the Digital Divide


      • Austin’s Unlocking the Connection program promotes digital inclusion among the city’s public housing residents by providing free high-speed home Internet connections, training in digital literacy, and free refurbished computers.
      • Digital education programs focused on training participants to use online public and social services, teaching parents to engage with their children’s education, and promoting career advancement are central to Connecting for Good’s mission in Kansas City.
      • Tech Goes Home Chattanooga partners with more than 60 organizations to offer digital literacy courses throughout Tennessee’s Hamilton County.

Front and side facades of a two-story apartment building with two more buildings in the background.

Meadowbrook Apartments, a 100-unit HACA housing development in Austin, offers gigabit-speed Internet connections to residents. Photo credits: Patrick Wong

Over the past few decades, the Internet has become a key tool in many parts of daily life, including searching and applying for jobs, doing homework, paying bills, accessing news, interacting with government, watching television and movies, and even talking with friends and family.1 Low-income households in the United States, however, are less likely than wealthier households to use the Internet; they are also less likely to have broadband connections at home, which means that they can miss out on the opportunities that access to high-speed Internet affords.2 This digital divide manifests in various ways: through a lack of home Internet connections, low rates of computer ownership, and uneven skills and training in digital technologies (see “Community Development and the Digital Divide”).

Three innovative and effective programs are working to bridge these gaps by leveraging nonprofit, public, and private resources to provide free or low-cost devices, Internet connectivity, and classes in digital literacy: Austin’s Unlocking the Connection, a public- private partnership focused on public housing residents; Connecting for Good in Kansas City, a nonprofit that serves low-income residents; and Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, which works with underserved groups in Tennessee’s Hamilton County.

Unlocking the Connection in Austin

Although 92 percent of the one million residents of Austin, Texas, have an Internet connection at home, a rate higher than the national average, the city still faces a digital divide based on age, income, and gender.3 According to a 2015 study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin, about 50,000 Austin residents do not use the Internet.4 Compared with Internet users, these nonusers are more likely to be older, female, and less educated. Nonusers are also disproportionately African American — the home connectivity rate among African Americans is 80 percent compared with 91.9 percent for Hispanics and 94.5 percent for whites.5 A significant portion of Austin residents who do not have a home Internet connection cite cost as the chief impediment.6

Some 4,300 people, or 1,838 families in the city, live in the Housing Authority of the City of Austin’s (HACA) 18 developments. Nearly half of HACA residents (48%) are children, 12 percent are elderly, and 31 percent are disabled. Women outnumber men, making up 58 percent of the residents.7 According to a 2013 survey of HACA households in East Austin, fewer than one-third of residents reported owning a desktop, laptop, or tablet computer. And among those who did own one of those devices, 28 percent did not have Internet access at home.8

To eliminate the digital divide for its residents, HACA, in partnership with the city of Austin, Google Fiber, and other philanthropic and corporate partners, launched Unlocking the Connection in 2014. Led by nonprofit Austin Pathways, a HACA subsidiary that works with low-income families to achieve self-sufficiency, the program provides HACA residents with training in digital literacy, free refurbished computer devices, and free home Internet service at either 5 megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabit speed from Google Fiber.9

Unlocking the Connection began taking shape in 2013, when Sylvia Blanco, executive vice president of Austin Pathways, sought to make digital inclusion for public housing residents a part of HACA’s strategic plan. In 2014, Google Fiber made Austin the country’s second city to receive gigabit broadband service, an extremely fast fiber-optic connection available in only seven other cities nationwide. At the time, Google Fiber launched a competition to award free broadband connections to 100 nonprofits in the city. Some 350 organizations applied, and although most of the 100 winning sites were anchor institutions such as libraries, schools, and hospitals, the community computer lab at HACA’s Booker T. Washington Terraces was among them.10 This successful outcome gave Blanco the opportunity to open a dialogue with Google Fiber and the city of Austin about bringing broadband connections into the homes of public housing residents. Internet access and digital literacy “have become a necessity to function and compete in today’s market,” says Blanco, who argues that digital inclusion is critical to supporting individuals’ journey to self-sufficiency.11 Ultimately, the partnership with Google Fiber will offer HACA residents free gigabit-speed Internet connections, but until the fiber-optic cables are installed, the city’s many Internet service providers offer low-cost connections to these households.

A group of people, some seated at long narrow tables with laptop computers, listen to a presentation being given by a woman.
The digital literacy training that Unlocking the Connection’s partner organizations provide is meant, in part, to prepare HACA residents for local jobs. Photo credits: Unlocking the Connection

Digital Literacy

In addition to Internet access, Unlocking the Connection provides digital literacy training to HACA households. In designing the training classes, the program benefited from the support and expertise of Austin’s vibrant technology community, which includes companies such as cloud computing firm Rackspace; strategic planning and support from IBM, which provided consultants at no cost; and Dropbox, which developed a curriculum called LifeHacks that provides smartphones prepopulated with apps used to pay utility bills, connect to public schools’ web portals (to access data on children’s homework and grades), and research employment opportunities.12

Unlocking the Connection partners with organizations such as the United Way and the Boys and Girls Club to deliver the digital literacy classes. The courses range from 32 to 60 class hours, and residents who complete 80 percent of the classes in their course earn a certificate redeemable for a refurbished computer or tablet at no cost. Each family can earn up to two devices per household each year, although families with more than three children can earn an additional device. The organization then schedules a “computer deployment,” which includes computer installation and a comprehensive orientation, so that residents can confidently apply their digital literacy to their new computer.13

In addition to the support that Unlocking the Connection has had from the nonprofit and private sectors, the city of Austin has also backed the program’s development. The city’s Grant for Technology Opportunities Program, which provides matching grants to organizations that work toward digital inclusion, funds Unlocking the Connection’s Digital Ambassadors and Lab Apprentices programs. These programs pay public housing residents to teach other HACA tenants how to use digital tools, from computers to programmable thermostats.14

Since its November 2014 launch, the program has been rolled out to six HACA properties, five of which are in South Austin, the area of the city with the lowest rates of home Internet access. Some 580 households have completed digital literacy training; about 500 have already earned a device, with 150 more households slated to earn a device this fall. Google Fiber is now installed and available to residents in four HACA properties, and another property offers free 100 Mbps connections through a contract with Austin-based nonprofit USFon. In all, 12 of HACA’s 18 developments will have free gigabit-speed connections, and the remaining 6 will have free 5 Mbps connections.15 The program has been recognized with a 2015 Digital Inclusion Leadership Award by the National League of Cities and Next Century Cities in the Most Promising New Plan or Program category.16

Children sitting across from each other and working on laptop computers in a classroom.
Connecting for Good is piloting a new program that examines whether providing parents with digital literacy training enables them to be more involved with their children’s schooling. Photo credits: Kansas City Public Schools

Increased Opportunities

About 40 percent of Austin’s economy is based in digital technology, a sector that includes software and semiconductor companies as well as the film industry, which relies on digital tools. The local workforce, however, is largely unprepared for these jobs. Recent estimates put the number of unfilled technology jobs in the city at 60,000. Catherine Crago, head of strategic initiatives and resource development for HACA and Austin Pathways, points out that Unlocking the Connection staff are “very attuned” to the fact that companies throughout the city need more technically skilled workers and that they “need to look more in our backyard to find them.”17 To some degree, the program is preparing HACA residents for these jobs; three tenants are now working in information technology fields in roles that, according to Crago, were “completely inaccessible to them” before their training.18

Residents’ children are also benefiting from the program. Many can now do homework at home, says Crago, because of the devices their families have earned and the Internet connectivity they have at home. Moreover, the computers are preloaded with educational content, including textbooks, typing tutors, STEM educational games, and MedlinePlus in Spanish and English, so that even without Internet access, students can use the devices for homework and learning. Crago also points to the increased quality of life made possible through the computers, Internet connectivity, and digital training, which residents draw on to connect with loved ones. The federally supported Lifeline, which offers low-cost landline or cell phone service, provides for a finite number of minutes; once those are reached, service is cut off. In contrast, Unlocking the Connection surveys show that participants consider the Internet to be a much more consistent way to connect with friends and relatives.19

Learning Along the Way

With a budget of about $40,000 to put toward devices, Unlocking the Connection staff knew they would have to find other sources for supplying residents with computers. Crago notes that although donations of older computers were an option, many institutions destroy these computers’ hard drives when they get rid of them to comply with privacy requirements. Destroying hard drives may be an efficient, low-cost way to ensure that a hard drive is fully “scrubbed” of personal information, but doing so renders the computers useless.20

Austin Community College (ACC), which refreshes its computer labs biannually, donated 600 desktops, keyboards, and mice to Unlocking the Connection in 2015. Rather than destroy the hard drives, Unlocking the Connection staff devised a way to wipe the drives in accord with strict privacy standards, using a CD with free software and a USB stick. “We can refurbish as many at a time as we have USB sticks,” says Crago, stressing that this easy, low-budget process is not very time intensive. HACA refurbishes the computers and installs the Linux operating system and 32 gigabytes of educational content on each.21

Residents inevitably experience technical problems with their devices, but providing technical support can tax a housing agency’s resources, says Blanco. The program’s partnership with ACC has tackled this challenge as well. The college created a new internship focused on providing technical support for HACA residents. In addition to troubleshooting technical issues and meeting a need that HACA could not adequately address, the interns serve as role models for the residents, particularly youth, “who may have never even imagined that this is a job they can pursue,” says Blanco. “It opens up a whole new world of possibilities [for them].”22

Reaching large numbers of residents at each property is also a challenge. The first wave of participants often seeks out the program, says Crago, but the second and third waves of potential participants are harder to engage. Some of Unlocking the Connection’s partner organizations attempt to do so by going door to door, but families’ often hectic schedules, among other factors, can make such canvassing difficult. About 25 percent of parents, for example, are not home when the organizations do this face-to-face recruitment. Moreover, recruiting residents is not a one-size-fits-all task. “Every property, every neighborhood, every cul-de-sac has a slightly different culture and feel,” says Crago. As a result, at each property, service providers must develop different strategies for recruiting and retaining participants, for finding out where the “opinion leaders” live, and for earning potential participants’ trust. This tailored approach makes the difference between programming that succeeds and programming that fails to attract tenants.23

Trust between residents and HACA is another barrier that Unlocking the Connection has overcome. Residents express concerns about the degree to which HACA can and will monitor what they do on their computers. Although the organization does not monitor residents’ Internet use, Crago says that concerns about whether Internet use is related to the tenants’ lease agreement are among the most frequent questions that program staff receive.24

The age of HACA’s buildings has proved challenging because installing Google Fiber requires penetrating building walls, some of which were constructed when asbestos was used in building materials. Consequently, HACA has had to perform asbestos abatement in some units to ensure installation crews’ safety. HACA is also rehabilitating its buildings through HUD’s Rental Assistance Demonstration program, which addresses asbestos abatement. As a result, the installation of Google Fiber has taken longer than anticipated.25 Google’s work to install Google Fiber throughout the city has also been a time and labor intensive process. The construction difficulties that Google encounters — such as navigating around and sometimes puncturing sewer and water pipes — inevitably slow the rollout of Google Fiber for Unlocking the Connection.26

Evaluation and Mentoring

To assess the program’s efficacy, Unlocking the Connection has partnered with the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin. Researchers are measuring broadband usage and computer literacy penetration as well as how residents use digital tools — whether to do their work, improve their quality of life, or connect with social services. The evaluation also examines the role that social learning plays in finding out about and adopting different apps and technologies.27

In addition to this formal evaluation, the program also communicates regularly with residents through focus groups and other informal opportunities for feedback. Blanco and Crago both point to the necessity of creating curricula and programs that are based around residents’ interests and needs.28 “So many times we create a program for the benefit of the families we serve, but we don’t always get the input from the residents,” says Blanco. She stresses that this input is key to Unlocking the Connection’s success, from creating meaningful curricula to inspiring participation.29

As a mentor city for the national ConnectHome initiative (see “Community Development and the Digital Divide”), a role it assumed in November 2015, Austin has prioritized sharing both implementation challenges and best practices with other cities. Unlocking the Connection has also shared what it has learned about the nuts and bolts of cable agreements and how to take on new digital literacy providers. Other initiatives have also benefited from the program’s cost and time effective method of refurbishing computers. Crago regularly fields questions from the 28 ConnectHome communities about how to proceed with their digital inclusion efforts.30

Three kids stand in front of a table with a laptop computer.
Students in the TGH CHA School program open new Chromebooks on the last day of their classes at East Lake Elementary. Photo credits: Tech Goes Home Chattanooga

Connecting for Good in Kansas City

In 2012, Kansas City, Missouri, became the country’s first city to receive Google Fiber. Yet a quarter of the metropolitan area’s 2 million residents lack access to a broadband connection at home, including more than two-thirds (70%) of the 15,000 students in Kansas City’s public schools.31 Connecting for Good addresses its core mission of digital inclusion by offering education and training in digital tools; selling refurbished, low-cost computers; and providing free or low-cost broadband connections to low-income families and nonprofits. In the areas where the organization focuses its work north east Wyandotte County in Kansas and the communities east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri up to 80 percent of residents do not have computers or broadband access at home.32

Digital education and training are central to the organization’s mission, which it realizes through free classes in technology, the Internet, and computers. Its curricula fit into three main categories. The Connected Life curriculum encompasses digital life skills such as using the web to learn about transportation options; housing options, including resources to help older adults age in place; and financial literacy. The Connected Life curriculum also trains participants to use online public and social services as well as broadband and computer technologies that foster social connections. Connected Education programming focuses on teaching parents how to engage with their children’s education digitally. Courses focus on how to use online school portals that provide information about attendance, grades, and homework completion. This branch of programming also teaches parents how to talk with children about appropriate online content and how to obtain a library card. The Connected Careers program pairs coursework in digital literacy with the opportunity to earn certifications that promote career advancement. For example, participants can take exams that require a computer and a proctor, including the SAT, ACT, and General Education Development exams, in the same place where they complete their digital training.33

Connecting for Good also presently offers certification in Microsoft Office and Cisco basic networking as part of its Connected Careers coursework. In February 2016, the organization began adding microcourses that are only a few hours long, including introductory coursework in Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Word, computer maintenance, keyboarding, and financial literacy. Paired with the hands-on training in digital tools, these certifications are on ramps to workforce readiness, says Tom Esselman, Connecting for Good’s chief executive officer. Participants emerge from the Connected Careers coursework with the technological skills and qualifications needed to obtain entry level jobs.34

In addition to providing education and training, the organization sells refurbished computers to low-income families. This work is also important for sustaining itself; about 20 percent of the organization’s $390,000 operating budget comes from selling the donated computers and printers that it refurbishes. The rest of its budget comes from providing low-cost technical support to local nonprofits and from foundations, corporate grants, and individual donors.35

Connecting for Good also facilitates free and low-cost broadband access throughout the city through more than 50 computer labs, which are available in churches and other organizations as well as in public housing communities. Some of these labs consist of only a handful of computers, whereas others have several hundred.36 In 2012, the organization also built a wireless mesh network — an inexpensive way to provide Internet connectivity to an entire neighborhood using a system of wireless access points or nodes — to provide free Wi-Fi to 500 low-income households at 3 public housing properties.37 Currently, the organization also provides low-income households with unlimited 4G Internet access at 5 to 8 Mbps for $10 per month.38 Soon, however, residents in the 2,057 apartments managed by the Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority and in the 1,900 units owned and operated by the Housing Authority of Kansas City, Missouri, will be able to connect to the Internet even faster.39 In February 2016, West Bluff Townhomes, a public housing development in Kansas City, Missouri, became the first public housing development to receive Google Fiber’s free gigabit-speed service, which has since expanded to five additional public housing properties. Google Fiber plans to roll out this service at no cost to the rest of the city’s public housing residents. Connecting for Good, in turn, is providing these public housing residents with education and training in Internet use.40

As in Austin, building trust within the communities that are receiving Internet connectivity is an issue. Even though the new Google Fiber connections are free for public housing tenants, staff from Connecting for Good need to persuade residents to sign up and allay residents’ fears that they are going to be spied on or viewed as “lab rats,” says Esselman.41

Changing Lives

Since its inception in 2011, Connecting for Good has sold more than 3,000 refurbished, low-cost computers to low-income families. Desktop computers (which include the monitor, keyboard, and mouse) sell for as little as $50, and laptops sell for as little as $100. Attendance in the classes has risen sharply; in 2014 and 2015, 3,900 people took part in the organization’s classes, and more than 2,900 people took a class during the first half of 2016 alone. Esselman attributes this rise in attendance in part to the increased number of courses that Connecting for Good provides, including the microclasses. Although Esselman cautions that the number of people the organization serves may vary, he estimates that through its wireless mesh and computer labs, it provides Internet connectivity to approximately 8,000 people.42

Together, education, devices, and broadband connectivity have made meaningful improvements in the lives of Kansas City residents. As an example, Esselman points to training in how to navigate the city’s website to complete tasks such as paying a parking ticket. The ability to pay these tickets online is transformative for people who might otherwise ignore the tickets out of fear that they would be arrested if they paid the ticket in person. Because unpaid tickets can accumulate greater fines and even lead to an arrest warrant, knowing that the city’s online portal exists, understanding how it works, and possessing the computer access and broadband connectivity to use it can change people’s lives, Esselman says.

Although the prevailing assumption is that technology makes people more isolated, Esselman has observed the opposite effect. “Often, you think, ‘Why would I care about people getting online to play video games and be on Facebook all the time,’” says Esselman. “What is overlooked in those comments [is] the way social connections through the Internet help combat isolation,” particularly among older adults.

Connecting for Good is also piloting a program at three schools to examine whether educating parents in digital literacy helps them become more involved in their children’s schooling. Participants in the pilot program agree to have a teacher or other school staff member sign off on their digital education course after they complete it. The program is evaluating whether a correlation exists between student engagement at school and parental learning in the education program. Although the data will not be available until late 2017, Esselman expects to see a positive correlation between the two. When parents “don’t have to wonder about kids’ attendance, the teachers’ names, whether the kids are completing their homework, and what their grades are,” they can “more creatively and genuinely” engage with their children’s learning.43

Tech Goes Home in Chattanooga

Although Chattanooga, Tennessee, is home to “the Gig,” a publicly owned fiber-optic network that launched in 2010 and is one of the country’s fastest, only 7.5 percent of the city’s Internet subscribers had signed up for it in 2013. Fewer than one-third of residents in the city’s urban core have Internet access at home, even at the most basic speeds.44 The city’s uneven rates of home broadband connectivity make completing homework difficult for students, even if they have a computer at home. Many adults in this city of 177,000 also lack the digital skills needed for jobs in data entry or skilled manufacturing.45 As a result, as in Austin, people often are recruited from other cities to fill those jobs. Digital literacy skills among some adults are so underdeveloped that they cannot fill out online job applications for non technical jobs at places like Walgreens, says Kelly McCarthy, program director of Tech Goes Home Chattanooga (TGH CHA).46

Modeled on Tech Goes Home, a national program launched in Boston in 1999 that has trained more than 20,000 low-income people, TGH CHA is run by the Enterprise Center, a public-private partnership whose mandate includes promoting digital inclusion as a way to improve the city.47 The city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County provide about 80 percent of the organization’s $350,000 annual budget, with the remainder coming from foundations and individual donors.48

To address the digital divide in Chattanooga, TGH CHA provides four types of programming, each targeted to different groups: TGH CHA School, focused on school-aged children; TGH CHA Community, focused on adults; and TGH CHA Early Childhood, focused on preschool-aged children and their families. The fourth focus area, programming targeted to local businesses, will roll out in January 2017.49 And although technological challenges manifest differently in each of these communities, TGH CHA is focused on achieving similar goals for all its participants: “digital literacy and education; access to devices; and Internet connectivity,” says McCarthy.50

The group partners with organizations— a total of 62 as of fall 2016 — to offer courses at sites throughout Hamilton County, including elementary, middle, and high schools; nonprofits; libraries; youth and family development centers; and churches. Each of the three types of training focuses on the aspects of digital literacy most relevant to participants. For instance, TGH CHA Community provides 15 hours of tutorials geared toward tasks such as finding a job online, writing a résumé, and using the city’s online resources. TGH CHA School offers digital training to families with children attending Hamilton County public schools, helping them access their children’s grades and attendance records and find age-appropriate learning resources. TGH CHA Early Childhood works with parents and preschoolers to prepare children for kindergarten through age-appropriate apps and videos.51

Once they complete training in any of these three areas, participants can buy a new Chromebook for $50 and are offered opportunities to sign up for a low-cost home Internet connection. Chattanooga has many low-cost Internet options, due in part to competition among Internet service providers, says McCarthy. Among these services is the city’s NetBridge Student Discount Program, which provides access to the Gig for $26.99 a month — half the regular cost — to the 20,000 households with students in Hamilton County public schools who receive free or reduced meals.52 NetBridge is not the lowest cost connection available; other private companies also offer low-cost connections, such as Comcast’s 10 Mbps connection for $9.95 per month, available to households with a Hamilton County public school student who receives free or reduced school meals.

A group of older men and women using laptop computers.
A TGH CHA Community class for seniors at Olivet Baptist Church. Photo credits: Tech Goes Home Chattanooga

A Pilot Program and Beyond

TGH CHA started as a six-month pilot program that ran from January to June 2015 at three schools, a library, a youth and family development center, and a church. Seventy-two people between 4 and 84 years old, from 49 households, completed digital literacy training during that time. Of these, 28 completed the TGH CHA Community program; 40 completed TGH CHA School; and 4 completed TGH CHA Early Childhood.53 Among the pilot participants, 90 percent had incomes under $30,000 a year; 68 percent were unemployed, and 17 percent had part-time employment. Three-quarters of participants were women, and more than half (52.8%) were African American.54 At the pilot’s completion, 49 Chromebooks and iPad minis were distributed, and the percentage of participants with home Internet connections rose from 61 percent to 68 percent, with another 12 percent of participants reporting that they intended to obtain connections.55

In all, 1,155 people aged 3 to 93 from 794 households have participated in TGH CHA since its launch in January 2015. Demographically, the participants resemble the cohort from the pilot: nearly three-quarters are African American or Latino; more than one-third (34%) are unemployed; and just over three-quarters (76%) have annual incomes below $30,000. The organization has distributed 789 new Chromebooks and iPad minis and has helped nearly 150 households sign up for low-cost Internet connections. The organization aims to reach at least 1,247 households by the end of 2016, a goal that McCarthy expects to meet considering that TGH CHA is currently offering more than 70 courses at nearly 50 locations.56

Data management is key to the program. Participants are surveyed at their first and last classes about their computer skills, with the average self-assessed computer skill level rising from 4.3 to 7.4 (on a scale of 1 to 10) by the end of the course.57 This metric reflects participants’ increased confidence and comfort with technology, which research shows are important to digital facility.58 The program also tracks changes in Internet connectivity at home. After the classes, the number of participants who obtain internet connections, whether broadband or hotspot/cellular, increases by 20 to 25 percent, says McCarthy. And six months after classes end, nearly three-quarters of participants report that they are continuing their digital literacy training, both formally and informally.59

Addressing Challenges

One challenge that TGH CHA has faced is reaching participants in the more rural parts of Hamilton County. Although the Gig and other low-cost Internet user vice providers offer broadband Internet access throughout the county, says McCarthy, residents in rural areas, particularly those who lack reliable transportation, face challenges simply getting to TGH CHA’s class sites, which are clustered in a few central locations. Some of the partner organizations that teach TGH CHA’s classes have started distributing bus passes to participants to make commuting to class possible. Encouraging participants to attend classes can also be difficult, so other sites — both rural and urban — have held raffles for a $40 bag of groceries to increase attendance.60

The organization also adjusted its courses based on results from the pilot program. For example, during the pilot, training sessions were completed in labs equipped with computers that run Windows operating systems. But at the program’s end, participants were given the opportunity to purchase a Chromebook. The transition from a computer with a Windows operating system to a Chromebook was jarring for some participants, says McCarthy. As a result, she says, TGH CHA now requires all sites to use Chromebooks so that people “learn on the device they’ll be taking home with them.” At sites that don’t have Chromebooks on hand for class use, participants must pay the $50 fee up front. This policy creates a greater incentive to finish the class, says McCarthy, because otherwise participants do not get the Chromebook or a refund.61

Despite the many options for home broadband in Hamilton County, ensuring that participants obtain and maintain these connections has not been easy. McCarthy notes that the paperwork needed to qualify for the discounted NetBridge plan has been a barrier for some. In response, TGH CHA initiated connectivity drives at six schools.62 On nights when parents meet their children’s teachers, three Internet service providers, including the municipal provider, EPB, are on hand to help parents determine the plan that best suits their needs. Hosting the vendors at the schools also enables families to quickly verify their eligibility for the free or reduced price school lunch program and immediately provide vendors with the documentation needed to continue the sign-up process; one vendor even schedules installation during these drives. In addition to these school-based drives, TGH CHA is also piloting a new early childhood model in which participants receive two years of free Internet connectivity in addition to an LG Tablet for the same $50 copay. The importance of such early childhood education, McCarthy says, is evident in studies demonstrating that when early educational experiences extend beyond the preschool classroom and into the home, children are better prepared to succeed in school.63 Yet “many parents in the demographic we serve may not know how to help prepare their children for kindergarten and beyond,” she says. The goal of TGH CHA, McCarthy says, is to teach parents some of the basic principles of early childhood education, provide them with tools to use at home, and have parents practice using the tools with their child during the TGH CHA course.64 TGH CHA’s early childhood curriculum requires staff trained in early childhood education to teach parents how to use the devices as educational tools for their children rather than as screens for passive viewing. However, Hamilton County already faces a shortage of daycare and Head Start centers, and staff at existing centers are already stretched thin, making the addition of another program challenging. Moreover, McCarthy points out that because TGH CHA early childhood participants have at least one young child, the chaos and unpredictability inherent to parenting young children can create obstacles that make committing to the classes difficult for families.65

McCarthy says that she has learned the importance of coordinating with the trainers teaching the digital literacy courses as early in the process as possible. Often, institutional leaders, such as principals or assistant principals, will express interest in having TGH CHA at their school, but “the volunteers and trainers have to feel they have some ownership” in the program and should be “brought to the table” early on. McCarthy also points to the flexibility of the Tech Goes Home curriculum as a major programmatic strength. “The focus is not on teaching a specific set of skills, but more about helping participants understand online tools and the relevance of technology in their lives,” she says. Although each of the programs incorporates some of the same elements, the Tech Goes Home model — an open source initiative — is designed to be flexible enough to accommodate communities’ individual needs.66

A volunteer assisting an older woman working on a laptop computer.
A volunteer works with a TGH CHA School program participant at Red Bank High School. Photo credits: Tech Goes Home Chattanooga


Unlocking the Connection, Connecting for Good, and TGH CHA rely on public, private, and nonprofit organizations in their pursuit of digital inclusion. The complexity of the digital divide demands this collaborative approach. To help low income families obtain home broadband connections, the programs depend on networks built, run, and maintained by companies with technological and infrastructural expertise. To provide low-income families with free or affordable computers, the programs rely on other organizations to donate devices for free or at extremely low cost. And even though the programs provide the curricula, to deliver a robust array of digital education classes, the programs depend on partner organizations and anchor institutions to deliver — and sometimes host — the digital coursework.

Although the programs all address three elements of digital inclusion, each stresses the importance of education and training. TGH CHA’s McCarthy observes the need for this education despite high rates of smartphone ownership and the connections to the Internet that these phones afford. “We see that time and again, participants can have a smartphone and can use Facebook and text message all day long, but when they go to [online] job applications,” they do not know how to fill them out, she says.67 Both Esselman and Crago point out that computers and broadband connections have little use to those who lack the training to use them to improve their lives. Esselman notes that digital training is so fundamental to quality of life that we ought to talk about education as infrastructure — in other words, providing digital training is as important to addressing the digital divide as is laying miles of fiber-optic cable.68 It is the knowledge of how to use these tools, he says, that changes people’s lives.

  1. Susannah Fox and Lee Rainie. 2014. “The Web at 25 in the U.S. Pew Research Center,” 4.
  2. Lee Rainie. 2016. “Digital Divides 2016: Internet Governance Forum,” Pew Research Center Presentation.
  3. Sharon Strover, Joe Straubhaar, Karen Gustafson, Wenhong Chen, Alexi Schrubbe, and Paul Popiel. 2015. “Digital Inclusion in Austin: results from a Citywide Survey,” 2-1.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Strover et al., 2-2.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Housing Authority of the City of Austin. 2014. “Austin Pathways’ Unlocking the Connection Pre-Submittal Conference,” 4, 13.
  8. Mindy Ault. 2015. “Unlocking the Connection in Austin, Texas,” 3.
  9. Unlocking the Connection. 2014. “HUD Secretary Castro joins HACA and Google Fiber in Launching Nation’s First Digital Inclusion Program for Austin Public Housing Residents,” 20 November press release; Austin Pathways. “Unlocking the Connection( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  10. City of Austin. 2013. “Google Fiber Community Connections Program Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’ s)”; Ault, 1.
  11. Interview with Sylvia Blanco, 19 September 2016.
  12. Interview with Catherine Crago, 12 September 2016.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Email Correspondence with Sylvia Blanco and Catherine Crago, 17 October 2016.
  16. Next Century Cities. “Digital Leadership Inclusion Awards” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  17. Interview with Catherine Crago.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Interview with Sylvia Blanco.
  23. Interview with Catherine Crago.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Interview with Sylvia Blanco.
  26. Ibid.
  27. Interview with Catherine Crago.
  28. Interview with Catherine Crago; Interview with Sylvia Blanco.
  29. Interview with Sylvia Blanco.
  30. Interview with Catherine Crago.
  31. Connecting for Good. “About Us” ( Accessed 16 November 2016; Google and Mayor’s Bi-State Innovation Team. 2010. “The State of Connectivity in KC,” 8.
  32. Connecting for Good. “About Us.”
  33. Interview with Tom Esselman
  34. Ibid.
  35. Email correspondence with Tom Esselman, 13 October 2016.
  36. Interview with Tom Esselman; Email correspondence with Tom Esselman.
  37. Connecting for Good. “Understanding Mesh Networks (Video)” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  38. Connecting for Good. “Internet Access for Low Income Families” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  39. Kansas City, Kansas Housing Authority. “Public Housing Program” ( Accessed 16 November 2016; Housing Authority of Kansas City, Missouri. “Public Housing Overview” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  40. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2016. “HUD Secretary Castro and Google Fiber Announce First Public Housing Units to be Connected to Ultra High Speed Internet through ConnectHome Initiative,”  press release.
  41. Interview with Tom Esselman.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Interview with Tom Esselman.
  44. Edward Wyatt. 2013. “Fast Internet is Chattanooga’s New Locomotive,” The New York Times, 3 February; EPB. “Our History” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  45. U.S. Census Bureau. 2015. “QuickFacts: Chattanooga city, Tennessee” (,00). Accessed 16 November 2016.
  46. Interview with Kelly McCarthy, 13 September 2016.
  47. Tech Goes Home. “Impact & Results” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  48. Email correspondence with Kelly McCarthy, 11 October 2016.
  49. Tech Goes Home CHA. “About Tech Goes Home” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  50. Interview with Kelly McCarthy.
  51. Ibid.
  52. EPB. 2015. “Enrollment Underway for EPB NetBridge Student Discount Program” ( Accessed 16 November 2016.
  53. Tech Goes Home  CHA. 2015. “Program Report: Pilot 2016,” 2–3.
  54. Ibid., 2.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Interview with Kelly McCarthy; Email correspondence with Kelly McCarthy, 13 September 2016; Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, Program Report, 5.
  57. Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, “Student Surveys”; Interview with Kelly McCarthy.
  58. Matthew S. Eastin and Robert  LaRose. 2000. “Internet Self-Efficacy and the Psychology of the Digital Divide,” Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 6:1.
  59. Interview with Kelly McCarthy.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Ibid.
  62. Ibid.
  63. See Institute of Medicine. 2000. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  64. Email correspondence with Kelly McCarthy.
  65. Interview with Kelly McCarthy.
  66. Ibid.
  67. Ibid.
  68. Interview with Tom Esselman.


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