(TNS) -- Seeking to close the "digital divide," Madison officials will begin rolling out low-cost internet service to four low-income neighborhoods later this month and offering residents of those areas refurbished computers as part of a pilot program.
Mayor Paul Soglin and Ald. Maurice Cheeks announced the new "Connecting Madison" program Tuesday in the Allied Drive Neighborhood, alongside local business and nonprofit leaders who are either implementing the network or providing donated computers. The announcement comes after after years of planning and budgeting for fiber optic infrastructure.
"So many of us have been saying for a long time that access to internet needs to be a basic right, that, in fact, it is, and that it should be considered as a utility," Cheeks said. "The fact that we have so many partners here that are stepping up to say, 'Yes, exactly, and we want to prioritize Allied Drive' … is amazing."
The new "Connecting Madison" program will deliver fiber optic internet service to residents of the Darbo-Worthington Neighborhood by the end of September, and to the Allied Drive, Kennedy Heights and Brentwood neighborhoods by the end of the year for a fraction of prices advertised by major internet service providers such as Charter and AT&T.
Under the program, residents of those neighborhoods will have access to 10 megabit per second (Mbps) internet service for $9.99 a month from city-selected vendor ResTech Services, without having to bundle additional services such as phone and television.
The Federal Communications Commission raised its definition of high-speed broadband from 4 Mbps to 25 Mbps last year, but at 10 Mbps, the city-sponsored internet service is, for example, still double the speed that Netflix requires for high-definition streaming.
ResTech will offer faster download speeds of 20, 50 or 100 Mbps for $19.99, $29.99 and $49.99, respectively, as well as add-on TV and landline phone service options.
The city estimates about 1,050 families will be eligible for inclusion in the pilot project. The pilot was initially slated for only the Kennedy Heights and Darbo-Worthington neighborhoods, but a 2016 city budget amendment added $215,000 for a total $415,000 to extend the pilot program to all four neighborhoods.
The city has also worked with businesses to secure used, but still high-functioning, computers from local businesses that will be donated to eligible residents who attend computer training sessions conducted by nonprofit DANEnet.
Soglin said the digital divide has created social, educational and employment disparities and added the city must continue efforts to improve access to technology.
"We have to rely on and engage these very important private sector and industry providers who realize that the future of their community is their responsibility," Soglin said.
©2016 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)
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