Lack of Internet access makes climb out of poverty harder – Al Jazeera America

Marsha Robinson celebrated a milestone this year. She earned an associate’s degree in applied science.

If this accomplishment seems ordinary, take a look at the odds stacked against her: She is in her late forties, is a single mother of four children and lives in the Bronx, a borough of New York City where 30 percent of residents are below the poverty line. But by far the biggest challenge, she said, was living in public housing with no access to the Internet. 

“Oh, my God, it wasn’t easy,” she said.

She attributes her success to a fair amount of determination and discipline. And the digital van.

The van, a mobile computer lab, is a project of the New York City Housing Authority, the city agency responsible for public housing. The van travels across the city’s five boroughs, bringing free broadband access to areas that have none.

Robinson couldn’t afford a laptop or her cable bill and had no computer literacy when she started her program. During those two years, she would visit the van faithfully each week for fours hours at a time, taking her handwritten assignments to be typed up and printed out. 

There, she would do research, complete online classes and look up the Latin medical terminology she needed to know. Some of her research was basic. “I didn’t know what a blog was when I started out,” she said with a laugh. “I had to Google it.” Her kids would go along and do their homework in the van.

Robinson is one of an estimated 2 million New Yorkers without Internet access at home. More than a third of households below the poverty line do not have home Internet access, according to the Center for Economic Opportunity. So for the city’s poorest, paying bills, doing homework and applying for jobs are harder still.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is focusing efforts this year on bridging this digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots as part of his broader agenda for economic justice.

Declaring that Internet access is no longer a luxury but a necessity, his administration announced plans to spend $10 million bringing free high-speed broadband service to five public housing developments in the city.

An estimated 60 million Americans lack Internet access at home, and given how much of our lives depend on online interactions, the consequences of being on the wrong side of the divide are substantial. 

Robinson welcomes the mayor’s initiative but said, “It took the president to bring this to light,” referring to Barack Obama’s announcement earlier this year that he would expand a program bringing high-speed Internet access to low-income households all over the country. 

In New York City, small-scale community innovation isn’t waiting for government to take the lead.

Take Stuart Reid and Doug Frazier, veteran digital entrepreneurs who created a wireless broadband network at the Harlem Hospital Center. The network also works as a backup emergency communications system for the hospital and provides free Wi-Fi to the rest of the neighborhood.

“Although there’s a proliferation of smart devices, people are lacking basic broadband in the home,” Reid said, pointing out that smartphones often have their limitations. 

Frazier said that people who can’t polish their resumes or apply for jobs online are less likely to gain employment, further deepening income inequality. “The people on the wrong side of the divide won’t be the ones getting the contracts and the jobs,” he said.

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