How the U.S. government will bring high-speed Internet to low-income families

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President Obama‘s new plan to bring broadband Internet to low-income Americans is starting to take shape.

ConnectHome, a collaboration between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and a coalition of public-housing authorities, businesses, nonprofits, and Internet service providers like Google Fiber and Sprint, represents the government’s most ambitious attempt yet to bridge the digital divide between those with high-speed Internet access and those who can’t afford it in an era of tight budget constraints.

“There is a strong consensus that every American household needs to have broadband access,” HUD Secretary Julián Castro told the Daily Dot after ConnectHome’s unveiling. “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.”

“Removing that stipulation, that eligibility stipulation that they have to meet a certain credit check, it’s huge.” 

Many of the operational details of ConnectHome will be finalized at a meeting of program participants in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 18. While HUD is the federal partner in ConnectHome, it is not managing the day-to-day logistics. The department has contracted with two nongovernmental organizations, EveryoneOn and US Ignite, that have negotiated the details of discounted Internet service, digital literacy training, and the program’s other benefits.

“The role of HUD is going to be to make sure that those things are happening, but it’s going to happen on the ground,” a senior HUD official, who spoke on background due to the department’s policy on interviews, told the Daily Dot.

Breaking down barriers to entry

At the local level, city governments and the public housing authorities that operate residential facilities will be reaching out to residents to let them know that inexpensive or free service is available through ConnectHome. “They’ll essentially be doing a marketing campaign to let folks know, who are living in HUD housing with children and families, that they likely have access to this ConnectHome project,” said a senior HUD official.

HUD officials were eager to tout the fact that ISPs were “prequalifying” the families that lived in public housing in ConnectHome cities. Prequalification, they said, would eliminate many of the procedural burdens on families that have stymied other attempts to bring subsidized Internet to low-income communities.

ISPs offering discounted service through other government programs have often required credit checks to determine eligibility. If someone living in public housing ended up there because they lost their job, their inability to pay bills would have damaged their credit score, jeopardizing their eligibility.

“Removing that stipulation, that eligibility stipulation that they have to meet a certain credit check, it’s huge,” said Kerry Coughlin, director of communications at the Seattle Housing Authority (SHA), which is participating in ConnectHome.

More than two-thirds of Seattle public-housing residents fall into the lowest income bracket, earning less than 30 percent of medium income in their area. “It’s the lower end of the scale,” Coughlin said, “and as you can imagine, being in that situation has put many of these families in a position of not having a good credit rating for one reason or another.”

“If one circumstance leads to a job loss and leads to homelessness—what we see in any family where that happens, it becomes a really downward spiral of not being able to pay bills and then your credit’s bad and then you can’t build back,” Coughlin said.

CenturyLink, a ConnectHome ISP serving Seattle and other areas, will prequalify all of the SHA’s families.

HUD officials predicted that prequalification would head off a problem that has handicapped other subsidized-broadband programs in their infancy.

“We think that will greatly accelerate uptake and will make enrollment much easier than it has been in the past,” a senior HUD official said.

Coughlin said that Sprint and other companies offering Internet through ConnectHome would waive some of the fees traditionally associated with their services. When someone buys mobile broadband service through Sprint, the company will give them the required device for free.

“There are some elements in this ConnectHome [program] that really build over and above a general low-cost Internet program,” she said.

Cracking the digital ceiling

The idea for ConnectHome sprang from a sense within HUD that its job was to position low-income Americans to springboard out of poverty—that if they just had the right tools, they could build a better future for themselves.

“We think of ourselves as the Department of Opportunity.”

“We think of ourselves as the Department of Opportunity,” said a senior HUD official. “We see this project as one of the tools that can be a mobility enhancer, an upward mobility enhancer.”

While 86 percent of high-income Americans had home Internet at the time of the 2010 Census, that figure was only 49.8 percent for Americans living in households earning less than $25,000. And adults in households with annual income below $30,000 are eight times more likely than rich adults not to use the Internet at all.

“This creates real problems for [low-income Americans] in terms of applying for jobs, taking advantage of education opportunities, and using some of the entertainment options that are common for other people,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. ConnectHome, he said, “represents an opportunity to help close that divide and give these people the benefits of digital technology.”

Coughlin said that people in her housing authority recognized the vital role that Internet access played in 21st-century mobility, particularly as it related to education.

“It totally disadvantages students when teachers in schools are moving almost entirely to an assumption that students have access,” she said. “When you have kids whose families can’t afford that monthly bill for Internet—and these are students, they can’t stay at the library by themselves all day, or all evening; they really need this access at home to complete their assignments.”

Parents, too, need to stay in touch with teachers. Strong links between parents and teachers can help solve classroom problems before they become serious enough to warrant outside intervention, Coughlin said.

Even in communities with very little home Internet access, Coughlin saw what parents everywhere know to be true: Kids are quick learners when it comes to technology, and they are usually the ones teaching adults how to embrace the digital world.

“One of the side benefits of being able to get home Internet is these kids become teachers for their parents on digital literacy,” she said. “They’re teaching the generation up how to function in this society—you know, a lot of immigrant families, or families who have not had access to the Internet traditionally as adults.”

The Seattle Housing Authority recently opened the waitlist to apply for housing vouchers to join its community. Because a computer had to pick the winners, the lottery had to be held online. The SHA ensured that community members could get free transportation to public libraries to apply for the online lottery, but they discovered something interesting about their application pool. “About 40 percent of those responses came from mobile devices,” Coughlin said. “What we think is, a lot of these younger people are helping their older family members and parents learn how to do these kinds of things.”

A missing ingredient

All of the ISPs participating in ConnectHome are commercial providers. To those who have heard President Obama praise municipal broadband, or city-run Internet service, those networks’ absence from the program might be surprising. But the goals of ConnectHome were service quality and affordability, not promoting a particular kind of network, according to a senior HUD official.

“We are less concerned about what the actual type of broadband is,” the official said.

There could still be interconnections between community broadband networks in ConnectHome cities and the commercial ISPs that are already signed on to serve low-income residents there. One senior HUD official said that he recently spoke to a city official who wanted to incorporate that city’s municipal broadband network. The official said that HUD was looking into ways to bring that network into the ConnectHome project.

“Some communities are gonna have that, some communities aren’t,” the senior HUD official said. “To the extent communities have it, and they can figure out a way to make it available, that is potentially a great piece of the solution for ConnectHome.”

Measuring success

Other departments and agencies have pitched in to support HUD’s work on ConnectHome. The Department of Agriculture spent $50,000 on building out the broadband infrastructure in Choctaw, Oklahoma, home of the Choctaw Nation tribe. The Department of Education, which operates a program, ConnectED, that served as the inspiration for ConnectHome, has consulted with HUD on how the two programs can work in concert. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) partnered with HUD to help them figure out how to measure the success of the program in its many different locations. The Pew Research Center, a widely respected survey firm, also lent its support to those conversations about metrics.

Those measurements will be crucial to ConnectHome’s long-term success and potential expansion. HUD plans to track the adoption and use of broadband in low-income communities to see how many people are getting online, how they’re using their new access, and how the Internet is changing their lives. Its Office of Policy, Development, and Research is hard at work devising a way of measuring the starting “baseline” of Internet access and digital literacy in the ConnectHome communities. That will need to happen within six months of the program’s launch.

“It totally disadvantages students when teachers in schools are moving almost entirely to an assumption that students have access.”

While HUD and its partners are developing the metrics, it will fall to the public housing authorities and city governments to gather the local data that will feed HUD’s evaluations. A senior HUD official said that it was important for communities to gather data in a standardized way so that project coordinators back in Washington could easily compare results.

HUD won’t just be looking at whether people sign up for Internet service and start browsing the Web. It wants to track how people’s lives are being substantively transformed by that access. HUD officials stressed the differences between outputs (raw data on service adoption and use) and outcomes (qualitative changes in education, wellbeing, and lifestyle due to that use).

This is where local commitments become incredibly important. If cities diligently measure low-income communities’ Internet use, through regular visits to public-housing projects and interviews with residents, they’ll produce vast quantities of data on individual life experiences that HUD can mine for indicators of what’s working and what isn’t.

“Is a child now submitting homework over the Internet? How often are they doing that? is that increasing? Are the parent engaging in the parent portal?” a senior HUD official said, listing examples of raw data that would help them build a clearer picture. “That helps you build toward the piece that’s tough but that we want to try to get at … the outcomes, versus the outputs.”

“Once we’ve taken care of the infrastructure problem,” said West, the Brookings Institution vice president, “it’s a question of getting people to actually use the Internet and take advantage of the features that are out there. So, for example, a lot of companies now require online job applications, so if people are outside the Internet, it makes it much more difficult for them to get jobs. If this program gets up and running, the expectation should be people have access to jobs and they have access to education and healthcare options.”

The Seattle Housing Authority has an existing partnership Seattle University to have college students track the academic achievements of SHA children. Coughlin said that the housing authority would use this program to track ConnectHome outcomes. “They will definitely be keeping an eye on this and the improvements that will be made through this,” she said.

Many ConnectHome communities are or soon will be running their own versions of the SHA–Seattle University partnership, a fact that underscores the need to come up with unified measurement standards. “Outputs are going to be critical at the beginning, and common output measures across communities will be critical,” said a senior HUD official.

HUD is already thinking about the lessons it will be able to draw from ConnectHome after a few years of implementation.

“This is a pilot project, or a demonstration project in HUD-speak,” a senior HUD official said. “We expect to learn from it. That means lots of things that are gonna be done will hopefully have a lot of success, and we’ll have some efforts that will probably be less success[ful], and we want to figure out what are the mechanisms and strategies that work best, so that when it’s down the line, we can take this information and make this project stronger.”

Building excitement

Although HUD announced a slew of partnerships with ISPs, businesses, and nonprofits when it unveiled ConnectHome, the department is hoping that the August meeting and the local meetings that follow it in each ConnectHome city “will generate enthusiasm locally and nationally” that could lead to even more participants in this first phase, a HUD official said.

“Just pick one of those cities and hopefully they’ll reach out to the big foundations in their area and say, ‘Hey, we could really use an infusion of X amount of dollars for digital literacy or for devices,’” a senior HUD official said. “We hope to keep building on the number of commitments that have already been consummated.”

Will HUD seek federal funding to expand ConnectHome? Senior department officials wouldn’t say, but they emphasized that they were focused on getting the first phase right. “At some point, in the near future, there will be an opportune moment to talk about what an expansion of communities could look like,” a senior HUD official said. “We’re not ready to have that conversation now. But given the enthusiasm and excitement, that is a potential scenario.”

Since ConnectHome was announced, HUD has been receiving calls from community representatives and other ISPs that want to get involved. One participating ISP was so impressed with the ConnectHome proposal that it offered to expand its commitment beyond ConnectHome communities to everyone living in HUD housing in its area of operation, according to a senior HUD official.

“That was a pretty astounding offer,” a senior HUD official said, “and so I think that’s an example of how it grows and gets bigger regardless of whether or not we get more government dollars put into it.”

Photo via Rachel Elaine./Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | 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.