Julián Castro explains how the new U.S. Internet-expansion plan could change rural America

Access to high-speed Internet in the United States is about to get a little more equal.

The U.S. government on Wednesday took its latest stab at closing the digital divide by launching ConnectHome, a program that offers free or low-cost broadband Internet to public-housing projects in 27 cities as well as one Indian reservation.

ConnectHome is the umbrella term for a network of partnerships between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and private companies. Internet service providers Cox, CenturyLink, and even Google Fiber are helping to connect homes.  Sprint is offering free wireless Internet to students living in public housing. And Best Buy is offering digital-literacy training. The program also includes local housing authorities and nonprofit groups like PBS.

President Obama formally unveiled ConnectHome during a speech in Durant, Oklahoma, the capital of the state’s Choctaw Nation, which is participating in the program. As it gets up and running, federal management of ConnectHome will fall to Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, who is now President Obama’s second Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The Daily Dot spoke to Castro on Wednesday afternoon about the challenges of bridging the broadband gap between rich and poor families, the importance of Internet access in 21st-century America, and how HUD will measure ConnectHome’s progress.

How did the discussions with Internet service providers and private businesses get started, and what was your pitch to them that eventually led to ConnectHome?

Julián Castro: A couple of years ago, the president unveiled ConnectED, which is a significant effort to connect every American to the Internet through schools. We want to make sure that that Internet connection follows young people home.

We started talking about a demonstration project in about a couple of dozen communities to demonstrate that we could in fact open up Internet access to public-housing communities. [We] started talking to private-sector folks, public-sector folks, and nonprofits, and that got the ball rolling to where we are today: 28 communities, several different Internet service providers, and a number of nonprofits that are working together with public-housing authorities to accelerate the adoption of broadband in public-housing communities—and especially in households with children.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has found that only 37 percent of Americans have a choice of ISPs offering broadband (based on the FCC/’s new definition of broadband). ConnectHome is offering free or low-cost Internet for its participants, but in the long term, how does this program fit into a country where, especially in rural areas, there is very little broadband competition?

This is one effort. We know that this is not going to solve the entire challenge that we have, but we’re trying to do our part. We’ve had some good response from a number of Internet service providers. The president, today, is going to the Choctaw nation in Oklahoma, which itself is, of course, in a very rural setting, to make this announcement.

We hope that through this demonstration project, this kind of connectivity will be able to grow in the future in rural communities and in bigger urban communities.

When we talk about making the case for things like ConnectHome, your department is at something of a disadvantage. HUD’s main constituents do not have great representation in Congress, they don’t have lobbyists, they can’t buy TV ads, so they have a hard time getting policymakers to hear their concerns about the digital divide. What can you as a Cabinet secretary do about that?

What we believe at HUD is that where you grow up should not dictate where you end up. We want to be a thoughtful partner for communities that care about lifting up every one of their residents. The 28 communities that we selected have shown a good ability to focus on revitalizing communities, have shown an interest in expanding Internet access.

You’re right that these are vulnerable communities, low-income communities. I’m convinced that the only way the United States is going to remain as competitive in the 21st century as it has been in the 20th is if we expand opportunity to everyone, no matter what their income level is. We’re dead-set on doing that at HUD, and ConnectHome is one example of that.

How are you going to be tracking the progress that ConnectHome households make in increasing their digital literacy?

There are two ways that we’d like to be able to measure success. The first is a very straightforward way. We have a whole bunch of families that don’t have Internet access now. They’re going to have the ConnectHome opportunity. We want to know, a couple of years down the road, how much take-up is there? How many more of these families actually get Internet access? We believe that it could impact up to 200,000 children. That in and of itself is a positive.

But secondly, we’re thinking through, how else can we measure outcomes here? For instance, some research suggests that children in similar circumstances, some who have Internet access versus those that don’t, the ones who have Internet access are 6 to 8 percent more likely to graduate from high school. We’re thinking through how we can measure some of these ultimate outcomes as well.

Where do you lay the blame for the rise of the digital divide? Is it more due to policymakers or the cable industry?

I believe that all of us have a role to play—the public sector, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector—in ensuring that there’s broader connectivity to the Internet. I’m proud of this effort and proud of all the partners that are part of it. My hope is that by demonstrating success with ConnectHome, we’ll see an expansion of this in the years to come.

How could Congress help with ConnectHome?

Of course, I’m a fan of ConnectED and the resources that have been dedicated to that. My hope is that those resources will continue to be in place until every single American household has broadband access. Because broadband access is so vital to being competitive in the 21st-century global economy.

In your conversations with the president, how optimistic is he about closing the digital divide?

The president is an optimist at heart. I know he’s pleased to be out in Choctaw nation to make this announcement. He believes that we can make a difference through ConnectED and ConnectHome, and he has said many times before that we need to ensure that, in America, there’s opportunity for everyone. ConnectHome is about ensuring that there’s opportunity for everyone.

The ConnectHome website says you’re going to be refocusing your department’s resources to supplement this program. What is that refocusing going to look like? How are you shifting resources?

There is no new money that is being spent as part of this effort. The USDA is investing $50,000 in a grant to help build out infrastructure so that the Choctaw nation can get wired up. Other than that, the resources are being invested completely by the private and nonprofit sectors, and in some cases local public-sector entities, like housing authorities. Overall, there’s a $70 million commitment that the private and the nonprofit sectors are making.

What we’re doing at HUD is we’re going to rewrite our rules so that, when new HUD-funded housing is built out, or there are major renovations to existing housing, that that is done with connectivity put in place, so that we don’t have to start over every time.

What kinds of conversations have you had about broadband with people in low-income communities or people representing those residents?

What I hear out there is that folks consider broadband a necessity these days, and I’ve had conversations both with residents throughout the U.S., everyday Americans, and also with some of their representatives. I can think of a conversation that I had with Rep. [Emanuel] Cleaver [(D-Mo.)], for instance, about the need to connect poor communities. I know that Sen. [Cory] Booker [(D-N.J.)] in New Jersey has been excited about this kind of work, that he’s worked on it in the Senate.

There is a strong consensus that every American household needs to have broadband access. Of course, there’s always different perspectives on how that should be achieved. But I’m confident that this partnership among the public sector, private sector, and nonprofits is an effective way to demonstrate the we can actually get something done.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said last month that Internet access is “not a necessity or human right.” How do you make the case to people like Commissioner O’Rielly that there needs to be more work done here?

It’s clear from the research that having access to the Internet matters educationally and economically to families, that a young child who doesn’t have access to the Internet starts off behind compared to those who do. It is in our national interest, no matter where you are in the income scale or where you live in America, to ensure that folks of all different backgrounds do have Internet access. Because that’s going to make us stronger as a nation and more economically competitive.

We all have to face the fact that, in this 21st century, for the first time, we’re in an unprecedented competition for jobs and investment with communities around the world that are producing graduates that are well-educated, that are connected, that are ready to innovate and to produce the kind of technological innovation that is going to drive prosperity and progress in this century. In order to keep up and outcompete those nations, we need to make these kinds of investments in broadband access. ConnectHome is a good way to start in public-housing communities.

What kinds of skills do you want to see ConnectHome build in the communities where it takes root?

I’m particularly excited that folks are going to get connected but we’re not leaving it there. Great nonprofits like PBS, ABCmouse, [and] the College Board are coming in—Best Buy, as well—to provide digital literacy efforts and then other educational opportunities. What we’re doing is we’re effectively using housing as a powerful platform to spark opportunity in people’s lives. That’s the number one thing that I’ve been enthusiastic about since I became HUD Secretary.

I’m very happy to get this ConnectHome effort off the ground and to see how it unfolds. I’m dedicated to making sure that it is a success in the years to come.

Photo via Lauren Gerson/Wikipedia (PD) | Remix by Jason Reed

Eric Geller

Eric Geller

Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.