Broadband Stimulus Without Government

Microsoft will donate $4.5 million to a Houston program designed to address the digital divide. The move represents another instance of the private sector’s growing role in addressing the low penetration rate of personal computers and broadband connections in low income areas.

As the U.S. government works toward allocation of some $9.2 billion in stimulus funds to expand broadband networks to unserved areas, the Houston program, Wireless Empowered Community Access Network (WeCan Works), points to the ongoing issue if the so-called demand divide—the persistent lag in penetration in inner city users even though broadband service is available from numerous providers at comparatively low cost.

Many feel the federal program, with its emphasis on high-cost infrastructure, will end up funding expensive systems with low demand—broadband to nowhere—while pockets of real unserved demand will be overlooked. Arguably, private sector-initiated programs such as this, along with One Economy, are already out in front in solving the digital divide because they look at the problem as more than just a lack of infrastructure.

As reported in the Houston Chronicle, Houston Public Library Director Rhea Lawson said the program, the third designed to address the so-called digital divide, will offer computer training and access, job counseling and apprenticeship opportunities to at-risk students.
Similar services will be offered to dropouts seeking GED certification and to older individuals seeking to improve job skills.

“We expect success,” Lawson said Monday after a news conference in which Mayor Bill White and others praised the program.

Nicole Robinson, the city’s director of digital inclusion, said instruction using 5,500 computers will be available at 400 sites, including libraries, schools, community colleges and Workforce Solution sites.

WeCan Works should serve as many as 155,000 people in its two-year pilot phase, Robinson said.

Some may recall Houston was one of the earlier cities to consider municipal wireless, but reconsidered the plan after looking at the mounting losses and poor uptake other cities encountered when they attempted to fund and operate their own broadband networks. After that, Houston attempted to launch a digital inclusion initiative that seemed aimed at exactly the opposite. The Microsoft funds seemed to have brought about a complete reboot.

The new approach seems to be to look for funding from companies that have a vested interest in seeing broadband use expand. Experience in Kentucky, North Carolina and now Texas shows the money is there. Taxpayers need not be tapped. In this scenario, everybody stands to emerge better.