City’s digital divide can be squeezed

April 17, 2012

For thousands of low-income Philadelphia households not connected to the Internet, it will take more than a bargain-rate price of $10 a month for Internet service to get them across the so-called digital divide.

The fewer than 500 takers for the service Comcast Corp. began offering in September as part of its merger with NBCUniversal makes it clear greater efforts are needed.

So it’s good to see a “Freedom Rings” partnership, which includes city agencies, the Free Library, various nonprofits, and Drexel University, form to expand training and computer access.

Free hands-on computer training and online access is under way at more than 80 locations, which can be found at Open to the public, about one-third of the training spaces are reserved for Philadelphia Housing Authority residents.

To draw publicity to the plight of the 41 percent of Philadelphians who lack basic computer skills or access, the partnership is asking city residents with computers to give up the Internet for 41 hours, beginning at 3 p.m. Saturday and ending with a breakfast to kick off Philly Tech Week at 8 a.m. Monday.

Meanwhile, the Free Library is launching a Techmobile, basically, a 25-foot, updated version of a bookmobile that will travel around the city, offering residents the chance to learn on assorted laptops and iPads, with technical advice provided by staff.

The library, of course, with computer centers at its 54 facilities, remains a digital oasis in many neighborhoods. Certainly, there’s no greater mission for the Free Library than to help link city residents with key information about jobs, training, or any number of other issues.

What the partnership and library initiatives do not achieve, though, is getting households online. For that, the Comcast program — perhaps one day joined by Verizon, as it wires more of the city — is the best hope.

But an ongoing outreach effort in city schools must be ramped up for more families to learn of their eligibility for the low-cost program, which includes laptops sold as cheaply as $150 each. Eligibility for the $10 rate is determined by a family’s qualification for the school-lunch program.

The fact that there’s such a broad cross-section of interest in helping city residents get online itself offers hope of greater progress. Philadelphia cannot thrive, much less boost high-school graduation rates and expand college-level opportunities, with so many Philadelphians on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial