IT Infrastructure

Federal Project Aims to Expand Web Access

By Ian Quillen — March 26, 2013 4 min read
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After nearly 18 months of recruiting partners, piloting outreach methods, and finalizing strategies, the triple threat of discounted broadband Internet, low-cost computers, and free digital literacy instruction became available last week to those who qualify through the Connect to Compete initiative. The nonprofit organization, which grew out of a program launched by the Federal Communications Commission in 2011, is backed by various philanthropic organizations.

Now comes what might be the harder part: getting people who need the help to take advantage of it. With the ambitious goal of putting broadband connections in the homes of all 100 million Americans—including tens of millions of students—estimated not to have them, the nonprofit organization and its partners will now need to entice citizens to take part in the program.

The discounts themselves should be enough for some people; Internet providers such as the Philadelphia-based Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc. of Atlanta, and Freedom Pop of Los Angeles are offering qualifying households broadband- or wireless-access plans for less than $10 per month. Participating hardware vendors also will sell new or refurbished computers to participants for less than $200.

“The real value here is in the access to the digital tools, the low-cost Internet and computers,” said Zach Leverenz, the chief executive officer of Connect to Compete, which officially launched its services March 21. “This is going to get past these [long-standing] barriers on costs and access.”

Further, some participating companies and organizations already began their efforts ahead and independent of Connect to Compete, and have already been publicizing the undertaking. The corresponding unveiling of the “EveryoneOn” advertising campaign, managed by the Washington-based Ad Council, should help give the partnership more publicity.

For the initiative to be successful, particularly in the underprivileged communities where connectivity is a challenge, it may also take the intervention of educators and advocates to promote its benefits. Although Connect to Compete is not explicitly an education initiative, qualification for many of the discounts for Internet and hardware are dependent on households having children who qualify for the National School Lunch Program.

“From an educational standpoint, connectivity is the key to ensuring students have access to the best materials for learning,” said Richard Culatta, the acting director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology. “We need to support teachers to help them take advantage of technology in effective ways.”

Several initiatives within the Education Department should help fuel more effective use of the Connect to Compete program by students, parents, and educators, Mr. Culatta said. For example, Connect to Compete may help replicate efforts to personalize learning now under way among winners of the $400 million in federal Race to the Top competitive district grants, he said.

Getting the Word Out

The Ad Council has a history of creating child-friendly advertising with characters like McGruff the crime dog, Smokey Bear, and Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies. But the “EveryoneOn” campaign will mainly target adults, particularly those who may be apprehensive about online technology, said Priscilla Natkins, the council’s executive vice president and director of client services.

The council will measure people’s attitudes toward home Internet use before and after the campaign launch, as well as monitor traffic on the campaign’s website and to its toll-free number, to judge the campaign’s effectiveness, Ms. Natkins said. Typically, such efforts take a few years to build steam, she added, one reason that partners such as the New York-based AOL Inc. and Monster Worldwide Inc., and Facebook Inc. of Menlo Park, Calif., have been asked to give a three-year commitment to the project.

Other companies that started their own connectivity initiatives before signing on as part of Connect to Compete have been using educational institutions to get the word out. For example, Microsoft Corp., which is participating as a computer vendor, originally targeted its own outreach, instituted in September 2011, toward teachers, providing them modest discounts on hardware and steeper discounts on software.

James P. Steyer, the chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based youth media watchdog Common Sense Media, says the importance of relationships with schools should be understood and embraced in all facets of Connect to Compete, but particularly in its attempt to provide digital literacy training at community centers across the nation. Some 21,000 community sites, including many libraries and some community centers under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are expected to be used for that purpose, according to a press release.

“There is no question there’s a great nexus between using schools to educate not only teachers but the parents about digital literacy and digital citizenship,” said Mr. Steyer in an interview. His organization partnered with Comcast on its Internet Essentials project and is also on the partners list for Connect to Compete.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Project Aims to Expand Web Access

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