Erica Swanson, Google Fiber

Erica Swanson, Google Fiber’s head of Community Impact Programs, talks about the digital divide at the ULI Housing Opportunity Conference in Boston

Speaking at the recent ULI Housing Opportunity Conference, Rick Haughey, vice president of industry technology initiatives at the Washington, D.C.–based National Multifamily Housing Council, likened the wiring of the United States to the internet to the early development of the nation’s highways, but as a cautionary tale.

“As we’re laying this infrastructure for broadband, I couldn’t help thinking about the last major infrastructure process that the country went through, and that was the Interstate Highway System,” Haughey said. “I was thinking about how there were winners and losers in the process of creating this vast network for travel and for commerce, and how it created new opportunities along the way [for those who got it] and how it hurt other areas that didn’t have the access.”

Properties with access to the new infrastructure saw increased value and economic opportunities, while properties located along the old infrastructure suffered. The same could be said of access to broadband for Americans. A great digital divide exists in the United States, both from a geographic (urban versus rural) and an economic standpoint, with many very low-income households currently missing out on the economic and educational opportunities that internet access provides.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey, 84 percent of American households report computer ownership, with 74 percent having internet access in their homes. Those numbers drop precipitously for the low-income households, with computer ownership declining to 71 percent and internet access to 54 percent for households earning less than 50 percent of area median income (AMI), and to 63 percent/46 percent for those earning less than 30 percent of AMI. Very low-income, senior, and disabled households fare even worse, at 30 percent/26 percent.

The panelists discussed programs that their organizations had developed to assist low-income households with internet connectivity and digital literacy to improve educational and economic outcomes, and included Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing, a nonprofit housing development company that operates more than 8,500 low-to-moderate-income units throughout California, and Erica Swanson, head of community impact programs for Google Fiber.

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From left to right: Erica Swanson, head of Community Impact Programs at Google Fiber; Linda Mandolini, president of Eden Housing; and Rick Haughey, vice president, Industry Technology Initiatives, at National Multifamily Housing Council, speaking at the ULI Housing Opportunity Conference in Boston.

Over the years, Mandolini and Eden have conducted a series of “experiments” designed to get low-income residents connected to the internet. After setting up a community computer room in the 150-unit Eden Palms complex in 1996, Mandolini was approached by Ben Hecht, cofounder of the One Economy Corporation, a nonprofit organization focused on connecting low-income people to the economic mainstream through broadband access. He convinced her to try a pilot program called Digital Connectors, which teaches teenagers to become technology experts in hardware and software.

“One of the best things about this program is that it requires the kids to volunteer in their communities, so they started staffing our computer rooms and teaching other residents how to use computers,” Mandolini said. In 2003, the program held its first graduation, and has proven to be a resounding success for Eden, scaling up from six kids in its pilot phase to more than 800 graduates to date.

The success of Digital Connectors led to Generation Exchange, another innovative program in which teens volunteer on a weekly basis to teach their senior neighbors basic computer skills, how to email and navigate the internet, and how to use Facebook to stay connected with family members and to see photos of their grandchildren.

Google Fiber’s Swanson, who describes herself as “chief resident sociologist” for the firm, detailed how Google Fiber was instrumental in the creation of the ConnectHome Initiative, a public/private collaboration designed to narrow the digital divide for families with school-age children living in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-assisted housing. Working in conjunction with the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), Google Fiber made the decision to provide free internet to public housing communities in the community, then sought out partners to help them accomplish their goal.

They were able to get community colleges to donate 2,000 end-of-life cycle devices, which the local Goodwill Industries agreed to refurbish. Austin’s chamber of commerce located funding partners to support the initiative, and they tapped the nonprofits that were already teaching digital literacy to provide the service to residents. The program was brought to the attention of HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and in July of 2015, the pilot program launched in 28 communities nationwide, reaching over 275,000 low-income households—and nearly 200,000 children.

“When we frame the issue beyond that of digital inclusion and we go into our communities, and go to other funders and the community colleges and the foundations and the other corporate partners, and we position this in the context of economic mobility and educational access, we find a lot of support for this work,” Swanson said. “We take it out of the silo of technology and move it into the social impact space.”