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Local No-Cost Broadband Program Takes Aim at Digital Divide

NextLight, the municipal broadband service for Longmont, Colo., offers a community-driven program that puts low-income families with school-age children on a path to high-speed Internet for no charge.

Even if broadband coverage isn’t the problem in a local area, the cost of high-speed Internet service may still hold back families who don’t have much money. In the city of Longmont, Colo., a program called Sharing the NextLight addresses the issue of affordability by providing broadband to eligible low-income families for free. 

The program, which kicked off last year, involves a partnership between NextLight, the Longmont Community Foundation and the Longmont Children, Youth and Families Division.

“We recognized the opportunity and the obligation to serve as many people in the city of Longmont as possible,” said Valerie Dodd, executive director of NextLight, the city’s municipal broadband system. “We are truly here to bridge the digital divide and serve those that may not otherwise be able to get service.”

It began by connecting low-income households to the fiber service before the start of the current school year. Without charging a dollar, Sharing the NextLight has given high-speed Internet (25 Mbps/25 Mbps) to 35 families, which translates to more than 160 children served, said Layra Nicli, the communications and marketing manager for Longmont Power and Communications. 

“We wanted to make sure that some of the kids were able to be as connected at home as they are at school, because the learning doesn’t stop just because class is over,” said Scott Rochat, public relations and marketing specialist for Longmont Power and Communications. 

Thus far, no family has been turned away, Nicli said. The program is partially funded by a $12,000 grant from Longmont itself. Other funding is provided by donations. The Longmont Community Foundation has been tasked with finding significant donations from technology companies in the area. Google, for instance, has made more than one large donation. 

Additionally, Longmont has set up a method for existing NextLight customers to add a donation to their monthly Internet bill. 

“We have seen a steady increase of people just donating on their bill,” Nicli said. “In the beginning, we were asking for donations directly to the community foundation, but we have some participation from our current customers that just do the recurring $10, $5 a month.”

Eligibility for Sharing the NextLight is determined by three factors. First, a family must live in a NextLight service area; according to Dodd, NextLight fiber covers about 85 percent of Longmont. Second, a family must have children in the St. Vrain Valley District. Finally, a family must receive free and reduced lunches. 

Free Internet service can occur after a family completes an application through the Longmont Children, Youth and Families Division. Administrative assistant Claudia Gonzalez said her organization informs families about Sharing the NextLight through various means, including cultural brokers in the community and informational tours of the Children, Youth and Families building. 

“When it comes to community and marketing around that, it’s preferably word of mouth and the strong connections that we have with the families in order for them to trust in applying,” Gonzalez said. 

She added that the families, given their busy schedules, need as much assistance as possible, whether it’s help with understanding the application or obtaining the required letter, to justify engaging in the application process. Applications can be completed in person or online and can be sent via email or mail. 

Gonzalez, who has worked for Children, Youth and Families since 2007, recalled a specific example of a family who needed Internet for schoolwork. The household was a mother and five children. The mother didn’t have a car, so finagling a way to get all of her kids to a library was a struggle. Gonzalez was able to build trust with the woman and lead her to Sharing the NextLight. A couple of months later, Gonzalez saw a much less concerned parent. 

“All of the obstacles are not in the way anymore,” Gonzalez said. 

According to Pew Research Center, 15 percent of families with school-age children lack broadband at home. For low-income households (less than $30,000 annual income), the statistic is even worse at 35 percent. Despite this access problem, about 70 percent of teachers give homework that requires a reliable and sufficient Internet connection.   

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.