SAN FRANCISCO — For years, the digital divide been a virtual bridge too far for a large swath of lower-income Americans.
Broadband penetration in U.S. homes with annual incomes of less than $50,000 is just 59.3% versus 88.8% in households with higher incomes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That could change, however, with a new effort from the Obama Administration.
Today, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro visits San Francisco to build support for ConnectHome, a new initiative that aims to bring accessible broadband Internet access to 750,000 residents of low-income housing communities in 28 pilot cities throughout the U.S.
“We want to create a greater pipeline of talent for people to join the 21st Century tech revolution, and we see ConnectHome in that vein,” Castro told USA TODAY in a phone interview. Castro, rumored as a possible vice presidential running mate for Hillary Clinton in 2016, spoke before his visit, where he will meet with tech executives.
Among his stops: GitHub, a technology platform where 12 million developers collaborate on software, which is contributing millions of dollars in equipment and technical support. GitHub is volunteering 2,000 hours to train and mentor those seeking a career in software development.
The unique partnership of the public and private sectors is as much about mining talent, as it is providing access to broadband technology to lower-income households. Google Fiber, Best Buy, Sprint, AT&T and others are donating products, services and financial backing.
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, has visited Kansas City, Mo., one of the program’s pilot cities. He plans to visit Silicon Valley to “spur others” to support ConnectHome. “No doubt, the lives of people will be changed for the good by closing the digital divide,” he said.
The cities include Memphis, Newark, Cleveland and New Orleans. Los Angeles is the only California city on the list.
ConnectHome is the next stage in President Obama’s push to expand high-speed broadband to all Americans, building on the ConnectED initiative to connect 99% of K-12 students to broadband.
Since Obama took office, the private and public sectors have poured more than $260 billion into new broadband infrastructure, so that 75% of Americans can plug into broadband at home. Broadband providers have played in the growth, as well, in their pursuit of more customers.
Mobile phone use in families with incomes of less $25,000 improved to 77% from 73%, according to a U.S. Census Bureau survey of more than 53,000 households.
“This will be a legacy of the Obama Administration,” says Jim Steyer, CEO of kids’ advocacy group Common Sense Media. Steyer, too, is scheduled to meet with Castro Tuesday morning to discuss how to provide affordable broadband access to low-income housing units nationwide.
“If you want to wire every home, and give everyone access to the Internet, then you have to teach them to be safe, responsible and ethical digital citizens,” Steyer, a professor of civil rights and civil liberties at Stanford University, says.
When it emerged as a talking point in the mid-1990s, the digital divide was about access to Internet connectivity. Those who could pay, had it. That manifested later in the quality of Internet service, particularly in school districts, perpetuating an uneven playing field, says Esteban Kolsky, founder of think.Jar, a customer strategies advisory firm.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, among others, has pressed Silicon Valley executives to close the gap and bring underserved and underrepresented communities up to speed on technology, to little effect.
Only 37% of American public schools have high-speed connections that can support video-based instruction in the classroom, and those that do pay steep prices, says Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway, which procures Internet equipment and broadband service for a growing number of the USA’s 100,000 public schools.
The emergence of the Internet of Things and social media have brought “digital proficiency” to more people — regardless of income and education — according to Alan Lepofsky, a Constellation Research analyst who has studied and written on the topic.
The key, Lepofsky and others contend, is connecting the populace, especially those living at or near poverty levels, to that technology.
Follow USA TODAY San Francisco Bureau Chief Jon Swartz @jswartz
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