Bridging the Gap in Houston

By Amy Mayer

April 10, 2008

A new program in Houston, TX leverages EarthLink's bailout money and donated equipment from Tropos to fund a library-centered "digital inclusion" initiative.

Where Houston could have been a real victim in EarthLink's pullout of a municipal wireless contract, instead the mayor has put more than half of the company's $5 million default fee into a  digital inclusion initiative. The project, dubbed WeCAN for Wireless Empowered Community Access Network, will bring Wi-Fi to community centers and other locations in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

 Nicole Robinson, director of the digital inclusion project, says the intention is to enhance services already offered by non-profit community groups and certain government agencies by bringing free Internet access. Of the 88 neighborhoods in Houston, Robinson says the project seeks to help those most in need.

"When we overlay the criteria of having a population who are least connected amongst some other criteria we identified 25 high-need areas," she says. Such additional criteria could include education levels, unemployment, and annual income. The first deployment in the project is in the Gulfton Super Neighborhood in Southwest Houston. The three square miles of Gulfton are home to 60,000 people who form "a community where over 40 percent of the population earns less than $25,000," Robinson says. In addition, the lack of a public library there meant even less access to computers, training, and the Internet than in some other places. An Express Library—heavy on computers, short on square footage—opened recently to meet some of the demonstrated need for library services.

Coordinated through the Houston Public Library, WeCAN received a donation of 15 MetroMesh routers from Tropos Networks. Denise Barton, director of public relations for Tropos, says the company recognized the value of collaborations between the city library and established community-based organizations, which are at the heart of the project.

"It's truly an impressive program," she says.

Robinson and Houston Public Library director of public relations Sandra Fernandez call the pilot project in Gulfton a Learning Journey, noting that it will help them make decisions about future deployments. On the agenda right now are ten communities to be connected over the next two and a half years, with hope to add the remaining 15 high-need areas thereafter.

"We're very excited about seeing how the initiative is going to pan out over the next few years," says Fernandez. "We want to impact positively the computer literacy of the community."

To that end, the library will provide "Train the Trainers" support for the staff at the community centers where hotspots will be located. Family Road Literacy Center is one such group. It offers English as a Second Language and GED courses, among others, with limited technological resources.

"They were a situation where they had a computer lab, but they did not have Internet access, they couldn't afford it," Robinson says. Once the Wi-Fi AP was in place, they suddenly had access to a full array of on-line training and educational resources, she says, which enhances their ability to achieve their mission. 

"They are truly working to improve quality of life," she says. Other groups with similar goals and track records will also gain Wi-Fi access as the network expands. Robinson emphasizes that the partnerships mean residents stand a chance of actually being able to benefit from the presence of Wi-Fi. It's not enough to tell people a network is in place, she says, because they also need help making use of it—whether that takes the form of computer literacy classes, Internet use training, or day care so a parent can use the computer without worrying about the children who had to come along. If it's successful, the network could lead to improvements in education, economic and workforce development, and general digital literacy, Robinson says.

The digital inclusion initiative runs the Wi-Fi network off the Houston Public Library's Internet backbone. Robinson says though many public libraries offer Wi-Fi on site and other cities are deploying digital inclusion programs via Wi-Fi, she doesn't know of anywhere else where the library is the lead city agency.

Fernandez says the project made sense for the library because it's a way for library computer training services to extend beyond the patrons who can walk in the door.

"What the digital inclusion initiative is [doing is] taking this model that the library was already doing and taking it outside the library's doors," she says.

For Tropos, Barton says it's another opportunity to help make the resources of the Internet available, wirelessly, to underprivileged users. She adds that Tropos equipment is also being used in projects with digital inclusion elements in places as disparate as Amory, Mississippi, Obregon, Mexico, and Antigua and Barbuda.

"We do see other places around the world using the wireless network specifically for digital inclusion," she says, noting that in Antigua and Barbuda wireless hardware allowed for the creation of mobile computer centers that are driven all around the islands to offer computer time to underprivileged children who otherwise wouldn't have Internet access.

Robinson says she appreciates that Tropos is "not just talking the talk, but really embracing this endeavor." She hopes additional sponsors and donors will come on board, but adds that the city is fortunate to have funding to get the project off the ground.

Amy Mayer is a freelance writer and independent radio producer based in Greenfield, Massachusetts. Read and listen to her work at her website.



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