“The New Digital Divide”

via Brendan Monroe for the New York TimesSusan Crawford has an important piece in today’s New York Times: The New Digital Divide. Here’s a snip:

Over the last decade, cheap Web access over phone lines brought millions to the Internet. But in recent years the emergence of services like video-on-demand, online medicine and Internet classrooms have redefined the state of the art: they require reliable, truly high-speed connections, the kind available almost exclusively from the nation’s small number of very powerful cable companies. Such access means expensive contracts, which many Americans simply cannot afford.

While we still talk about “the” Internet, we increasingly have two separate access marketplaces: high-speed wired and second-class wireless. High-speed access is a superhighway for those who can afford it, while racial minorities and poorer and rural Americans must make do with a bike path.

Hundreds of people here in Chicago have worked in a sustained way on matters of the Digital Divide here in our city. Much progress has been made, including expanded programs at libraries and increased capacity at other public computer centers. Lots of applications are being built for both high-speed and lower-speed Internet connections.

She outlines good news on the connectivity front:

True, Americans of all stripes are adopting smartphones at breakneck speeds…

These numbers are likely to grow even starker as the 30 percent of Americans without any kind of Internet access come online. When they do, particularly if the next several years deliver subpar growth in personal income, they will probably go for the only option that is at all within their reach: wireless smartphones. A wired high-speed Internet plan might cost $100 a month; a smartphone plan might cost half that, often with a free or heavily discounted phone thrown in.

But highlights an underlying problem:

The problem is that smartphone access is not a substitute for wired. The vast majority of jobs require online applications, but it is hard to type up a résumé on a hand-held device; it is hard to get a college degree from a remote location using wireless. Few people would start a business using only a wireless connection.

As the market progresses, and technology advances, the original way we conceived of the “divide” morphs into something more sophisticated. Smart Chicago is working toward a day when reliable, high-speed access— and the transformative power of the applications that run on those networks— is everywhere.

Broadband Technology Opportunities Program

Many current Smart Chicago projects involve the administration of the grants received by the City of Chicago under the U.S. Department of CommerceNational Institute of Standards and Technology under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) for Sustainable Broadband Adoption and the support of Public Computer Centers. As you can see in each of the project pages for our BTOP work, we are delivering on the promise of this important Federal money. Beyond BTOP, however, lies the central challenge for Smart Chicago– to create a funding and innovation framework for making sure every Chicagoan has sustainable access to the Internet and have access to meaningful applications that make their  lives better in concrete ways. Following is information about the two grants administered in partnership with the City under this program:

Award No. 17-43-B10507, for Sustainable Broadband Adoption The SmartChicago SBA project page on the NTIA Web site has a wealth of information, including the project application, the award agreement, and quarterly reports filed by the City. Here’s the project summary:

The SmartChicago Sustainable Broadband Adoption program intends to spur economic development in five disadvantaged neighborhoods in Chicago with a comprehensive broadband awareness and adoption program that will include providing computers and training opportunities to more than 11,000 residents and 500 small businesses and not-for-profits. The project intends to create public computer centers at six community centers for working families and expand workstation capacity at four Business Resource Centers, as well as provide 1,500 residents and small businesses who complete a multi-session training course with laptops and netbooks. SmartChicago plans to conduct a citywide multilingual broadband awareness campaign that will reach an estimated 200,000 residents, including ads on radio, TV, print, and city buses; outreach by local community organizations in each neighborhood; and the creation of neighborhood-based Web portals.

LISC/ Chicago is the key entity managing this important project, and they maintain the Smart Communities Web site with a wealth of information about their great work.

Award No. 17-42-B10553 for Public Computer Centers The SmartChicago PCC project page on the NTIA Web site has a wealth of information, including the project application, the award agreement, and quarterly reports filed by the City. Here’s the project summary:

According to a 2009 study commissioned by the City of Chicago, as many as 40 percent of city residents lack home broadband access, making libraries and other public computer centers essential resources for employment, training, and educational opportunities. Over 60 percent of Chicago libraries now report average wait times for a computer of three hours or longer. The SmartChicago Public Computer Centers project proposes a wide-scale upgrade and expansion of workstation capacity at more than 150 locations, including city libraries, community colleges, public housing sites, workforce centers, senior centers, after-school programs, and other community locations throughout Chicago. The project will provide hundreds of thousands of hours of training, including digital literacy instruction and assistance for job seekers. The project plans a specific focus on low-income residents, at-risk youth, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and the unemployed.

Smart Chicago has a number of sub-recipients performing the work under this award.

Smart Chicago Sponsors the City of Chicago’s 2012 Code for America Project

Smart Chicago is proud to help fund the City of Chicago’s Code for America project, which will allow the City to conform with the Open311 standard and help citizens and government officials collaborate to solve problems and make the city better. Here’s a snip from the project page on Code for America:

Chicago was an early adopter of 311 — a system that connects residents directly with the local government for non-emergency needs — and now it is a popular method for citizen requests for government services in the city. Their system, however, is phone-based and so closed to the wide range of digital mediums people use to communicate. There’s tremendous opportunity to leverage web-based technology to redefine and renovate 311 in Chicago.

Here’s what Mayor Rahm Emanuel had to say when the project was announced:

“The City of Chicago is breaking ground every day, increasing efficiency and delivering services in innovative ways,” said Mayor Emanuel. “As I said during my campaign, ‘Open311’ is long overdue and something we should pursue. Through this important project, Code for America will help modernize the way service requests are received, executed and tracked, and better serve Chicagoans.”

The project begins in February 2012– stay tuned for more updates on the fellows and how you can get involved in funding, coding, and app development.