In mid-September, the Freedom Rings Sustainable Broadband Adoption Partnership, a coalition of non-profit organizations, institutions of higher education, private businesses and government organizations, was awarded an $11.8 million grant to increase Internet access in Philadelphia.
The grant was awarded to the SBA Partnership by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration through its
Broadband Technology Opportunity Program.
On Jan. 17, Martin Luther King Day, the SBA Partnership will launch its services.
The partnership is led by the Urban Affairs Coalition, a 41-year-old non-profit organization committed to improving the life chances for youth and young adults. “We’re focused on improving people’s economic opportunities– helping them get jobs, education, and all the other things that make for a good living,” says Arun Prabhakaran, the acting project director for the SBA program.
In Philadelphia, 41 percent of the population does not have Internet access, he says.
The grant will fund four main components. The first is a citywide, social media campaign, aimed at reaching at least 5 percent of the city’s population. “One of the biggest challenges for people is that they don’t even know what the Internet does,” says Prabhakaran.
The goal of the campaign is to raise awareness of broadband among low-income residents and to help them understand the value of having broadband in their daily lives.
The second component of the grant is computer training. The grant will allow the SBA Partnership to provide more than 210,000 hours of hands-on training to nearly 15,000 people. This training will be geared toward underrepresented populations in the city such as low-income residents, homeless, youth, African-Americans and Latinos. Many of the participating organizations, such as Philadelphia FIGHT, a comprehensive AIDS service organization, already provide computer training to their target populations. The grant will expand that training.
Drexel University will lead the way for the third component–the Freedom Rings laptop program, which will provide 5,000 laptops to Philadelphia Housing Authority residents. After completing an eight-hour, sweat-equity training program, residents will be eligible to receive a laptop.
“When you give out 5,000 laptops you’re not giving them to 5,000 people,” says Prabhakaran. “You’re giving them to 5,000 personal networks.”
Much of the funding for the laptop program will come from the NTIA grant, says Tony Lowman, an associate professor at Drexel University. “However, for every $2 that we receive from the federal government for this program, Drexel will be matching $1.”
Overall, the program has a 32 percent match coming in from partner businesses and organizations. These funds will be crucial to the sustainability of the broadband programs once the two-year grant runs out.
There is a significant problem in Philadelphia, says Prabhakaran. “If we have a small vision and don’t resource it, nothing’s going to happen,” he says. “But, if we have a big vision and we resource it properly, we could really change the problem.”
Lastly, the SBA program will establish an online portal. This software, which will be created by Drexel University, will provide information about finding resources that the users may not otherwise be able to easily access, such as health or education information.
“If you don’t have Internet access, you’re missing out on information,” says Joanne Ferroni, the acting project manager for Drexel’s
involvement in the SBA program. “Without that, our society can’t move forward.”
Drexel will be hiring more than 44 co-op students to assist with the creation of the portal. Students will also be involved in the training processes and community outreach programs.
The SBA program’s aim is to have 5,000 subscribers on broadband over the course of the two years through its efforts. Getting broadband is a lot easier now than it was five years ago, says Prabhakaran. “There are all kinds of options that people didn’t have in the past and we want to educate people on what those options are and encourage them to try to get them,” he says.
Also included in the Freedom Rings Partnership is the Public Computing Center Project, funded by a grant that was awarded in July to the city. This grant will create 77 public computing centers throughout the city.
The People’s Emergency Center, a social service agency that serves homeless women and children, is part of both of the Freedom Rings Partnership’s grants.
The PEC, which opened its first computing center in 2004 and offers training classes to youth and adults, will be responsible for overseeing 20 of the 77 sites. It will expand the computing centers’ hours and provide more instructors at the sites.
“In this day of age you really can’t do much without access to the Internet in terms of applying for jobs, seeking educational opportunities, and accessing resources,” says Kira Strong, PEC vice president of community and economic development.
She anticipates that at the 20 sites about 50,000 hours of instruction will be provided and a minimum of 2,000 additional people will receive computer training.
“It’s as important as any other appliance you would have in your home such as a refrigerator,” says Strong. “A computer and access to the Internet are equally necessary.”