Atlanta kicks off program to improve Internet access for low-income families

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Atlanta launched a new program to shrink the “digital divide” affecting low-income families around the city, as part of the “ConnectHome” partnership with the federal government and private sector.

Mayor Kasim Reed announced Wednesday that the city would begin working with 75 families to provide them with free wireless devices, affordable broadband Internet connections and digital literacy training. The effort is part of a project launched by the White House and Department of Housing and Urban Development last July aimed at partnering 28 communities with technology companies to help improve high-speed Internet access for the people currently struggling to get connected.

“ConnectHome” puts a special focus on helping low-income students get the access they need to keep up in the classroom, and in Atlanta, Chief Information Officer Samir Saini told StateScoop that the city is taking that ethos to heart — there are 120 children among the program’s first participants.

“Improving connectivity for these families will have benefits for everyone in the household, but we really want these students to keep up with what their peers are doing,” Saini said. “Ultimately, we want all their educational outcomes to improve.”

Saini said the city chose the first group of participants to not only match the program’s federal requirements — the families involved have to be receiving HUD benefits of some kind — but also to put a focus on students in Atlanta’s public school system.

“We wanted to pick a reasonably small group, but not too small,” Saini said. “We’re hoping that, as we do this training and get them connected, we can track their outcomes.”

[Read more: Questions persist over Minnesota gov.’s $100M broadband proposal]

The CIO stressed that the city’s partnership with the school system will be a crucial one to ease that process, but he added that the private sector has an important role to play as well. In particular, he pointed to Google Fiber’s efforts to install service in select public housing properties that it will eventually offer free of charge as a key facet of “ConnectHome.”

“They’re building it out right now, and that will be huge in the long term when it comes to providing affordable broadband,” Saini said.

As Google focuses on those efforts, Saini said the city will work to include even more families in the programs in the coming months. By this summer, Saini hopes to broaden the city’s efforts to a group of 750 families, with an ultimate goal of reaching 1,200 before the year is out.

“That’s just a minimum bar,” Saini said. “We hope to have a lot more, and by the time the mayor’s term is over in two years, we hope to have made a real dent here.”

Indeed, Saini said the best possible outcome would be to have it on “autopilot” by the time Reed leaves office so that it can continue for the foreseeable future.

“We want this to be sustainable,” Saini said. “We need to pressure these companies, these Internet service providers to offer affordable broadband service.”

Contact the reporter at alex.koma@statescoop.com, and follow him on Twitter @AlexKomaSNG

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Atlanta, broadband, Careers & Elected Officials, Digital Services, Economy, Fiber, Georgia, Innovation, IT Infrastructure, Kasim Reed, Samir Saini, State & Local News, States, Tech News, Wi-Fi
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