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Charlotte Residents Shouldn’t Have to Buy a Burger for WiFi

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts, above, says a lack of Internet access is “widening the gap between the haves and have-nots and preventing opportunity from spreading into entire neighborhoods.” (AP Photo/Skip Foreman)

In Charlotte, students living in the most disenfranchised ZIP codes catch WiFi at the local McDonald’s, where they’ll have to buy a burger for 30 minutes of connectivity. They head to the local library when they have the bus fare. Even thought the Internet has drastically changed the way Americans work, learn and participate in society, one out of every six still can’t afford to get online.

Both the city and community nonprofit leaders are working on the issue, hoping to narrow this digital divide that limits economic and social mobility for some. Last year, the city of Charlotte established a steering committee focused on digital inclusion, and hired its first citywide digital inclusion project manager, tasked with developing a comprehensive plan for Internet connectivity for all.

EveryoneOn is a nonprofit that provides low-cost computers (in partnership with local nonprofit DigiBridge), Internet access, and education services to Charlotte residents who could not otherwise afford them.

“It is imperative that home access becomes a priority because the effects can be significant for the entire family,” says J’Tanya Adams, EveryoneOn regional manager. She says that Internet initiatives in the city have largely focused on schools. Resources have been spent on training teachers, adding smart boards to classrooms, and media literacy in a limited selection of school libraries.

More than 50,000 households in Charlotte don’t have Internet access. According to Adams, nearly 27 percent of the 146,000 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) are without the Internet at home. Nearly half of these students qualify for free or reduced lunch, aligning with national statistics that report that nearly half of low-income families (earning $33,000 annually or less) don’t have the ability to get online at home.

Studies on the importance of Internet access for low-income households are clear: Broadband provides a necessary bridge to employment, education, healthcare and civic participation opportunities, which can in turn create pathways to upward mobility. Just last month, in a Next City op-ed, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts wrote, “This lack of connectivity disproportionately affects our minority communities, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots and preventing opportunity from spreading into entire neighborhoods.”

Earlier this month, amid a call-to-action to the Federal Communications Commission to make possible a federal subsidy for Internet access for low-income Americans, President Barack Obama unveiled ConnectALL, a program urging nonprofits, businesses, private sector technologists and local governments to get 20 million more Americans on broadband by 2020.

“We hope to create a platform for lifelong learning and engagement for communities,” says Katherine Messier, founder and executive director of Mobile Beacon, which partners with Internet service providers to provide subsidized 4G connections at $10 per month to nonprofits and customers who qualify. “Our offer is that we can be used by adults, the disabled community and seniors to stay in touch with their medical providers. They’re using the Internet like everyone else.”

The private sector is also stepping up in Charlotte. Google plans to offer its high-speed Fiber for free in select affordable housing properties. (No timeline yet.) Sprint is contracting with EveryoneOn to provide 5,000 free lines of 4G mobile hot spots to families across the CMS school district. To connect, families must purchase a $75 modem, but residents can also reach out to their local schools to sponsor a modem for a family.

Defining metrics of success is much more than a numbers game. The impacts and outcomes of adding additional routes to connectivity for lower-income residents in Charlotte will be just as broad and vast as the Internet itself. Right now, organizations and companies are starting at the basic need to get families connected and defining goals along the way.

“We’re working with schools to establish goals as a district and as a community. We have to ask questions about what we’re trying to accomplish,” says Sprint’s Jim Spillane. “Improving graduation rates? Test scores? It really takes communities to help build out infrastructure and for organizations to continue to stay committed to stepping in.”