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Obama Seeks to Connect Public Housing Residents to Low-Cost Internet

27-Blended-Learning-Home-kiosk_500.jpgPresident Barack Obama has announced a new program that will seek to provide roughly 275,000 low-income families living in public housing with access to affordable high-speed Internet connections, as well as technical training and digital-literacy programs.

Dubbed ConnectHome, the initiative aims to bring together private Internet service providers, public-housing agencies, and elected officials and non-profit groups. The program is the latest step in the President's ConnectED broadband-infrastructure effort. It comes as leaders from the Federal Communications Commission, school-technology groups, and others have begun a concerted push to close the "homework gap" that results from many low-income students' inability to access reliable Internet connections outside of school.

"While high-speed Internet access is assumed for millions of Americans, it's still out of reach for too many people—especially in low-income and rural communities," Obama said in remarks at Oklahoma's Durant High School last Wednesday.

"Just because you don't have money in your household to buy fancy technology, that should not be an obstacle."  

ConnectHome will begin in 28 communities around the country, according to a fact sheet released by the White House:

Albany, Ga.; Atlanta; Baltimore; Baton Rouge, La.; Boston; Camden, N.J.; Choctaw Nation, Okla.; Cleveland; Denver; Durham, N.C.; Fresno, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; Little Rock, Ark.; Los Angeles; Macon, Ga.; Memphis, Tenn.; Meriden, Conn.; Nashville; New Orleans; New York; Newark, N.J.; Philadelphia; Rockford, Ill.; San Antonio; Seattle; Springfield, Mass; Tampa, Fla.; and Washington, DC.

The program will be overseen by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, which is not committing any new dedicated funding to ConnectHome.

Participating ISPs include CenturyLink, and Cox Communications, both of which have committed to providing public-housing residents in Seattle and multiple Louisiana communities, respectively, with home Internet service for less than $10 per month. Google, meanwhile, will offer free home Internet service to some public housing residents in several Google Fiber markets, including Atlanta, Kansas City, and Nashville.)

The cost of broadband in the U.S. typically ranges from about $35 to $75 per month.

And according to a new analysis from the President's Council of Economic Advisors, also released last week, less than half of children from the lowest-income households (bottom quintile) in the U.S. have a home Internet connection. They also suffer from a "broadband availability gap," with wealthier families far more likely to have access to the Internet with advertised download speeds of 25 Mbps to 100 Mbps.

Like the umbrella ConnectED initiative, ConnectHome will take different forms in different communities, with specifics driven largely by what private companies agree to.  Some have questioned ConnectED, through which corporations have pledged more than $750 million in technology-related goods and services to K-12 schools, for employing a "throw it up in the air and see who grabs it" approach.

Efforts to provide students with better access to high-speed Internet outside of school have intensified in recent months. Following the FCC's successful effort to expand the available pool of money for the federal E-rate program, which subsidizes telecommunications services in schools and libraries, some are pushing the commission to find ways to also support community-based broadband.  Proposed legislation would fund pilot programs to test out such new approaches.

And in the meantime, districts have begun to get creative, adding Wi-Fi to school buses and sending home mobile hotspots with students. 

In its recent special report on Blended Learning, Education Week also profiled the Kent, Wash., school district, which has pioneered efforts to bring Wi-Fi to students in public housing.

Photo: Fatuma Shoka, a 9th grader at Auburn Mountainview High School, uses the wireless Internet at the Birch Creek Community Center. The center, through a program supported by the Kent, Wash., school district, offers a kiosk emitting free Wi-Fi so students can go online to complete their school assignments.--Matthew Ryan Williams for Education Week

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