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Baltimore Tries to Close Digital Divide with Free Tablets, Internet

The effort expands on an earlier initiative to get more residents Internet access by promoting plans available to low-income families for about $10 a month.

(TNS) — In the two weeks after receiving a free tablet computer with Internet service, Doreen Berry applied for a handful of jobs, her daughter landed an Interview and her son completed a high school book report on the device from their West Baltimore home.

That’s exactly what officials with the Housing Authority of Baltimore City hoped for when they arranged to give away 500 tablets with two-year Internet subscriptions to their tenants as part of an effort to confront the so-called digital divide, the virtual disconnect from information and opportunities that disproportionately affects low-income and minority families.

The housing authority’s giveaway is aligned with a sweeping U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development goal to address the national disparity by leaning on nonprofits and companies to help connect families.

Tracey Oliver-Keyser, director of resident services for Baltimore’s housing authority, said the agency is spending $120,000 to cover the cost of $10 monthly high-speed data plans for two years per tablet. T-Mobile provided the tablets for free.

Under the initiative, the housing authority selected 500 residents who are enrolled in a various self-sufficiency programs to receive the devices. In exchange, the residents committed to staying active in the programs for the next two years. They get to keep the tablets.

Berry, 36, said the tablet is much easier to work on than her tiny smartphone screen and more convenient than heading to the library. It’s opened up possibilities for her family, too. Her son needed to read a book published in the 1960s by a Russian author before his junior year at Baltimore City College starts Tuesday, but he had trouble finding copies in print. He was able to download the book online, read it and get his report written on the tablet.

“I am grateful,” said Berry, who is supporting herself and three children on $10,000 a year. “I didn’t know I was going to get it. It was a surprise, shocking.”

Oliver-Keyser said the devices will make it easier for public housing residents to maintain employment profiles, check for job postings, stay in regular email contact with prospective employers — and help their children with schoolwork. Many families in the programs have smartphones, but often the phones are out of allotted minutes or data, making it difficult for the housing authority’s self-sufficiency program staff to stay in touch, she said.

“If it’s hard for us to connect to them, it will be even harder for employers,” said Oliver-Keyser, adding that so much of the job hunt is done online, from filling out applications to parts of the Interview process.

The housing authority decided to spend money on Internet connections after hearing about similar programs in New York and Philadelphia, and found a partner in T-Mobile, Oliver-Keyser said.

“We were looking at the impact it makes, especially for our folks looking to move up economically,” she said. “For our low- and very low-income families, there is a huge disparity in access to Internet services, and also in devices, especially in their home.”

The U.S. Census Bureau reported in August that just 21 percent of households with incomes lower than $25,000 were highly connected — meaning they had a computer, tablet, smartphone and broadband Internet — compared with 80 percent of households with an income of $150,000 or more.

Advocates see the issue as more a matter of equity than technology. People can use the web not just for socializing and entertainment, but also for paying bills, getting medical advice and earning degrees.

“People need Internet access; it is a basic need,” said Andrew Coy, director of the Digital Harbor Foundation.

The Federal Hill-based nonprofit coaches educators and runs a technology center that introduces young people to 3-D printing, computer programming and web development.

“It is a real issue and, if you don’t think it’s a real issue, it’s because you’re one that has access,” Coy said. “Any kid that has sat outside a public library to get access after hours to Wi-Fi knows what I am talking about. Anyone who looks for public Wi-Fi because they’re out of data can tell you.”

Many in Baltimore are considering ways to expand access, including the administration of Mayor Catherine Pugh’s study of the potential for municipal broadband using a next-generation, fiber-optic network. Officials need to figure out zoning requirements for wireless antenna placement and conduit access, partnerships with commercial service providers and the city’s capacity to maintain such a system, as well as overall cost estimates.

City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he is awaiting more information to determine next steps.

“A certain part of the population doesn’t have the resources to be on the information superhighway,” Young said. “If you don’t have the Internet, you’re in the dark ages. I am hoping, one day, we can have Wi-Fi across the whole city. It has everything to do with equity.”

Maribel Martinez, director of national programs for the Washington-based nonprofit EveryoneOn, compared the spread of Internet and computer access to the spread of electricity a century ago.

Home access to computers and the Internet often translates into financial stability for families, Martinez said. In the modern era, “pounding the pavement” to look for work has been replaced by managing online profiles and scouring job databases, she said.

EveryoneOn is working with public housing authorities to connect people to low-cost home Internet service, affordable computers and tablets. The group emphasizes the need for laptops and desktops with broadband access as opposed to access only on mobile devices, Martinez said. Smartphones and tablets generally are considered more suited for consumption, as opposed to computers that allow people to create content, such as resumes and school projects.

“It is difficult to write a term paper on a 4 1/2-inch screen,” Martinez said.

Relying on mobile devices to access free Wi-Fi at public hot spots also makes users vulnerable to identify theft when online banking, for instance, she said.

Oliver-Keyser said the housing authority chose tablets, instead of laptops, because that is what T-Mobile offered. She said the devices are easy to transport, appealing to young people and convenient for trips on public transportation.

The effort builds on an earlier initiative to get more residents Internet access by promoting Internet plans available to low-income families for about $10 a month, Oliver-Keyser said. In the past two years, officials have helped more than 1,800 residents sign up for Comcast’s low-cost “Internet Essentials” plan, which also offers families refurbished computers for about $150.

The housing authority might give away more tablets if the current batch improves the success of its workforce development and self-sufficiency programs, Oliver-Keyser said.

At a recent tablet giveaway at Pleasant View Gardens in East Baltimore, Kendra Marsh, 23, and Leonard Batty, 46, were among 60 housing authority tenants who waited for their turn to meet with a T-Mobile representative for a brief tutorial and a chance to unwrap their new tablets.

Batty, of Park Heights, hopes to use the device to search for business opportunities. He owned a convenience store in New Carrollton that closed in 2015, and he wants to open a new one.

“It’s a great giveaway,” Batty said. “People with low incomes need extra tools. It’s definitely needed."

Marsh, of Cedonia, has a laptop and Wi-Fi at home. The tablet will help her with her work in college as a nursing student and further her dream of creating a nonprofit to help foster youth.

“This will definitely help with my business plan presentation, because I already have one made,” said Marsh, who aged out of the foster system. “I am trying to network.”

©2018 The Baltimore Sun Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.