Engage Parents as Partners to Close the Digital Divide

Edutopia

Suzie Boss | May 9, 2016

When Superintendent Darryl Adams arrived in the Coachella Valley Unified School District in California in 2010, he found himself in a community on the wrong side of the digital divide. Poverty is pervasive in this region southeast of Palm Springs, with nearly all students qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Some 68% of students are English language learners. Parents include migrant workers who come and go with the growing seasons.

"None of these kids were truly connected," says Adams. In the information age, he saw that disconnect from technology as "a form of educational malpractice." That's why he led his district on a successful campaign to put iPads into the hands of every student, preK-12, and support teachers in making the shift to digital learning.

But as Adams and others have learned, devices alone won't close the digital divide. To really level the playing field, kids also need access to high-speed internet when they take devices home. That's not yet the case for some five million U.S. households with children of school age, according to the Pew Research Center. When devices do go home, parents who may be unfamiliar with technology need to be ready to help their kids become digital citizens.

Efforts to close the digital divide continue at the federal level. President Obama's ConnectED initiative aims to close the technology gap in schools and connect 99% of America's students to high-speed Internet. Persistent obstacles to digital equity are addressed in a new report, Opportunity for All? Technology and Learning for Lower Income Families. The authors find that, while most parents recognize the benefits that technology offers their children and themselves, many lower-income families are "under-connected," often relying on mobile devices with only limited functionality. The Council of Economic Advisers, in this issue brief, shows that the poorest neighborhoods and most rural places still have the farthest to go to close the divide.

Some schools aren't waiting for help to arrive. As a homegrown solution, they are enlisting parents as partners to help close the digital divide.

"With the right approach, technology integration leads to better engagement with parents along with better academic outcomes," says Agustin Urgiles. He directs an initiative called School2Home, funded by the California Emerging Technology Fund and The Children's Partnership. School2Home partners with low-performing middle schools to support technology integration in both urban and rural areas of California. Currently, 19 schools in 10 districts are involved. The School2Home model is comprehensive by design, incorporating planning, teacher professional development, evaluation, and more.

There's one unusual catch: Before kids get their devices, parents have to participate in several hours of technology training. Parent classes start with equipment basics, but quickly move on to more advanced topics, such as how to check students' progress online, communicate with teachers, and encourage online safety and digital citizenship. "Once we get to 80% of parents trained," Urgiles adds, "you see a transformation of the school culture."

At Winters Middle School, a School2Home partner site in northern California, the initial goal of 80% parent engagement wasn't high enough. Principal John Barsotti set the bar at 100%, arguing that "all kids need access." Micah Studer was a brand-new assistant principal when the 1:1 Chromebooks rollout launched in summer 2014. He led the charge with parent classes on weekends and after school. The school provided childcare to families that needed it and snacks for those who came hungry. "Getting to that first 80% was easy," Studer says in hindsight. He was thrilled with the quick results, "but as John [Barsotti] reminded me, the goal was 100%."

To engage the hardest-to-reach families, Studer and team "worked the phones like we were running a major political campaign." Sometimes the barrier turned out to be a scheduling challenge for parents who were working two jobs to make ends meet. Sometimes language concerns were the issue. "We started communicating almost everything in both English and Spanish," Studer says. "That tells our parents: You are a valued member of our school community. Your language is not a barrier to participation."

To reach the very last holdouts, Studer went to a community housing project and conducted tech lessons around kitchen tables. He says that experience taught him, "It's not enough to open the door and invite parents in. You have to be willing to walk through the door yourself and go into the community."

Winters Middle School is now in its second year with School2Home. The rollout has reached all 350 students in grades six to eight. Teachers work with an instructional technology coach to explore various uses of technology, such as Google docs or Edmodo to encourage online collaboration. One of the best indicators of success, from Studer's perspective, is that the "cool factor" is wearing off. "We don't want kids to think this is flashy. We want technology to be an everyday tool," he says, and something that everyone uses.

Read More

To Prosper, State Must Close the Digital Divide

Sacramento Bee

Barbara O'Connor | April 27, 2016

Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to act last week and it could set back for years the progress that California has made in closing the digital divide.

The chairman of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee deferred to industry interests and went against a large and diverse coalition of elected officials and community organizations working to close the divide in both rural and urban areas. That caused Assemblyman Mark Stone, a Scotts Valley Democrat and author of Assembly Bill 1758, to pull the bill.

Supporters of the Internet for All Now Act include Valley Vision, Communication Workers of America, the California State Association of Counties, the League of California Cities, Rural County Representatives of California, California Black Chamber of Commerce, La Clinica de la Raza, the Youth Policy Institute and United Ways of California.

The act would authorize collection of an existing modest surcharge on phone bills into a fund to support construction of broadband infrastructure into unserved rural communities and to help low-income households get online.

The fund was established by the Legislature in 2008 and has been an effective tool for leveraging private and federal investments into communities without adequate high-speed Internet access. The legislation would cap the annual amount received from consumers to less than what was collected in each of the last two years.

Rarely is there an opportunity to invest in the future and provide relief to consumers. Further, legislators must understand that the existing surcharge is the only available source of money to help close the digital divide without enacting a new fee or tax or authorizing a new budget appropriation. This mechanism must be made to work or there will be years more of delay in achieving equitable Internet access.

Read more

$32.5 million from "New Charter" for digital inclusion in California: A national model?

National Digital Inclusion Alliance

Bill Callahan | April 21, 2016

As the FCC nears a decision on the proposed merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, digital inclusion advocates in California have negotiated a $32.5 million deal with "New Charter" that could support broadband adoption by hundreds of thousands of low income families in the state.

Now the big question is: Will the FCC make the California agreement a model for communities affected by the merger throughout the U.S.?

Under California law, the transfer of cable franchises required for the proposed merger must also be approved by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) has led a statewide coalition calling on the CPUC (as well as the FCC) to withhold that approval unless the merged company, calling itself New Charter, agrees to a number of conditions to help overcome the digital exclusion of millions of residents in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside and other affected urban and rural communities.

Ever since the "New Charter" companies first told regulators they intended to merge last Summer, they've been promising a new affordable rate plan for some low income customers. Specifics of that plan were finally provided to the FCC in December. The proposed New Charter plan -- essentially, 30 mbps Internet service with no data caps for $14.99 a month -- would be available to families with children eligible for the Federal school lunch program, as well as customers 65 years of age or more who receive Supplemental Security Income, i.e. very low-income seniors. The offer includes no specific funding for marketing, and no investment of any kind in digital literacy training or support for the families and seniors who are its intended customers.

CETF and other digital inclusion advocates have been arguing for months that the New Charter plan should be open to many more low-income households, come with meaningful performance benchmarks (i.e. millions of new adopters), and be accompanied by a large financial commitment to support community-based outreach and training. Until recently, New Charter rejected all such proposals.

But two weeks ago, after months of public controversy and with a CPUC administrative law judge about to make his recommendations to the full CPUC, New Charter quietly reached an agreement to gain CETF's support. The deal became public last week as part of the judge's recommendations. 

The Charter-CETF agreement doesn't affect New Charter's low income rate plan, which will still apply only to School Lunch families and very low-income seniors. But it includes major concessions on the issues of benchmarks and funding for community outreach and training. Here's how CETF summarizes those provisions:

Within 5 years, New Charter agrees to make a good faith effort to enroll 350,000 broadband low-income customers in its California service area. Outreach to target low-income communities will be by community-based organizations, schools, libraries and other non-profit organizations. An outreach plan will be developed by June 30, 2017.

New Charter and CETF will collaborate on communication, marketing, and outreach efforts to low-income communities about the availability of affordable broadband service, including in language and in culture using ethnic media that serve the target communities.  New Charter may also provide its local programming resources for this effort.

New Charter will provide CETF $6.5 million annually over 5 years, for a total commitment of $32.5 million, to invest in community partnerships with nonprofit organizations, including schools and libraries, that can serve as “trusted messengers” for encouraging low-income customers to subscribe to high-speed Internet service at home in the New Charter service areas.

CETF will work with organizations that serve people with disabilities to ensure equitable outreach to this population and opportunity for broadband adoption.

Other provisions guarantee deployment of New Charter broadband as well as wifi to some currently unserved communities, and free service for some community anchor institutions.  (See CETF's full summary of the agreement at http://www.cetfund.org/investments/Public_Benefit_Partnerships/Charter_MOU_Summary.)

This is potentially a very big deal, not just for southern Californians but for the whole country.  There have been similar state-level regulatory agreements in the past between community advocates and major Internet carriers (notably in California, which is how CETF got its start). In this case, however, the proposed merger affects tens of millions of households in states other than California, and the terms of its approval by the FCC are apparently still being finalized. 

The FCC has routinely attached low-income rate concessions to big ISP merger settlements in recent years -- Comcast/NBC, Century Link, AT&T/DirectTV. But none of these settlements required the merged companies to reach specific adoption goals or commit to specific large-scale marketing expenditures -- let alone make significant investments in community digital inclusion efforts. 

But that's exactly what New Charter has just agreed to do in California. And it's exactly what some local NDIA affiliates have spent the past nine months asking the FCC to require New Charter to do on a merger-wide basis... in New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama among other places. Many proposed New Charter communities outside California -- e.g. Cleveland, Dayton, Kansas City, St. Louis, Buffalo, Rochester -- are among the nation's worst-connected.

Can the FCC ignore New Charter's $32.5 million commitment to digital inclusion in just one state? Or will this deal lead the Federal regulators to put community digital inclusion investment on their negotiating agenda on behalf of all the underserved communities served by Charter, Time Warner and Bright House?

We'll know soon.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile -- nice work, California!  

http://www.digitalinclusionalliance.org/blog/2016/4/21/325-million-from-new-charter-for-digital-inclusion-in-california

AT&T, Cable Lobbyists Gut California Broadband Subsidies

Tellusventure.com

Steve Blum | April 20, 2016

Broadband infrastructure subsidies are off the table in Sacramento, thanks to a coordinated campaign by AT&T staff lobbyists and the cable industry’s political front organisation, the California Cable and Telecommunications Association (CCTA). Assembly bill 1758 was pulled by its author, assemblyman Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz) after it became clear that the California assembly’s utilities and commerce committee was going to spike it at its meeting this afternoon.

Originally, AB 1758 would have put $150 million into the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) broadband construction subsidy account, and another $200 million in a range of broadband-related programs, including service for hospitals, facilities in public housing, digital literacy and marketing efforts and regional consortia.

A competing measure, AB 2130, written by AT&T and carried by an accommodating assemblyman, Bill Quirk (D – Hayward), was also pulled once the competitive threat posed by the open infrastructure grant program in Stone’s proposal was gone.

AB 2130 would have set up a $100 million infrastructure subsidy game and rigged it so that only incumbent phone companies could effectively play, putting the lion’s share into AT&T’s pocket with no meaningful strings attached. CCTA floated its own alternative, similarly designed to divert money directly to cable companies, but otherwise effectively the same as AT&T’s.

Stone’s offer of good faith negotiations and repeated attempts by Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund, to find a middle ground were rebuffed. The chairman of the committee, assemblyman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles), gave no indication that he’s any less interested in advancing AT&T’s agenda than he was last week when he gushed over another of its measures – AB 2395 – designed to allow it to yank copper lines out of unprofitable rural and inner city markets.

So Stone’s bill is dead.

Although resurrection is always a theoretical possibility in the California legislature, if you have a broadband project to build, you’d have a better chance buying lottery tickets for it. There might be attempts to fund one or more of the ancillary programs in Stone’s bill, perhaps by cannibalising what infrastructure money remains in CASF, but don’t expect to see more broadband construction money added to California’s kitty this year.

I’ve advocated for and helped to draft AB 1758 and its predecessors. I’m involved and proud of it. Take it for what it’s worth.

http://www.tellusventure.com/blog/att-cable-lobbyists-gut-california-broadband-subsidies/

CETF CEO Sunne McPeak Wins CUE Legislative Advocacy Award

Computer Using Educators (CUE) April 2016 Newsletter

CUE_Newsletter_Sunne_McPeak.pdf_-_Adobe_Acrobat_Pro.jpg

At CUE 2016 National Conference, the Legislative Advocacy Award went to Sunne McPeak, President and CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF) for her long-term and intensive efforts to help enable access to the high-speed Internet by all persons in all locations and by linking schools to homes. CUE is expanding its alliance with CETF to include collaboration on State and National policy and legislation Internet access to schools and homes. CETF is a non-profit established pursuant to requirements from the California Public Utilities Commission for the purpose of providing leadership statewide to close the "Digital Divide" by accelerating the deployment and adoption of broadband to unserved and underserved communities and population and to advocate for Federal and State policies related to affordable
Internet access.

Read more

Why It’s Too Soon to Declare Victory on Broadband Access

Washington Monthly

Susan Walters | April 7, 2016

On March 31, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made an historic decision to subsidize high-speed Internet service for low-income Americans - and dozens of influential news and advocacy organizations reported that a victory had been sealed.

For broadband advocates, the expansion of the federal Lifeline program certainly is good news. Established in 1985 to give low income people affordable telephone service, Lifeline was updated in 2010 to enable poor Americans to pay less for wireless phone service. Earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reasoned that a subsidy for broadband was needed, because most homework and job applications are now done online. And on the last day of March, three out of the five FCC Commissioners voted in favor of using the Lifeline program “to help low income consumers afford access to the 21st Century’s vital communications network: the Internet.”

But the declaration of victory may be premature.

For one thing, no one yet knows the exact details of the FCC’s decision. The specifics will not be released until mid-April - and those details could have a serious limitation on the ability of the Lifeline broadband program to close the digital divide, in which 43 percent of nation’s poorest households can’t afford broadband service. We do not yet know, for example, what the price will be to consumers. The only number the FCC approved is a $9.25 per customer/per month subsidy to telecom and cable companies (not to poor consumers), which will continue to be funded by a surcharge on our phone and cable bills. 

Read More

Crux of Charter Merger: the Digital Divide

Capitol Weekly

Sam Overton | March 30, 2016

The California Public Utilities Commission is about to make a landmark decision about the merger of Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks that will have a generational effect on closing—or possibly making permanent—the Digital Divide.

What is the Digital Divide and why is it so important? The Digital Divide is the gap between those who have access to the Internet and those who don’t. And it’s important because the Digital Divide is a mirror of the income divide and the opportunity divide. For low-income kids, adults, seniors, and disabled people, Internet access is now the straightest route into our digital economy—because now everything is online: homework, college and job applications, healthcare services, every single book in the public domain.

Awareness of the Digital Divide is at a high point. The White House Council of Economic Advisers recently issued the report “The Digital Divide and Economic Benefits of Broadband Access,” which states:

“Broadband provides numerous socio-economic benefits to communities and individuals, improving labor market outcomes for subscribers, increasing economic growth, providing access to better health care, and enhancing civic participation; academic research shows that using online job search leads to better labor market outcomes, including faster re-employment for unemployed individuals, yet because of a digital divide, low-income households are less able to use these tools than high-income households; unemployed workers in households with Internet were 4 percentage points more likely to be employed one month in the future than those in households without Internet. This difference persists over time.”

So how it is possible that more than one fifth of U.S. households are still offline—and that the Los Angeles Region lags behind the state average, with only 76 percent of households online and 10 percent of that number with smart phone Internet access only? Given its economic benefits, isn’t home Internet access—especially to low-income people—an economic development no-brainer? Isn’t access delayed, really just access denied?

These are the questions my network at the California Emerging Technology Fund is asking about the pending Charter merger. Charter has committed to an affordable broadband rate of $14.99 per month with a download speed of 30 Mbps for low-income households that have children on free-or-reduced school lunch and seniors on Supplemental Security Income, in order to support its offer to buy competing Internet providers. This is a very good rate for the speed, but Charter’s offer does not include all low-income households, particularly people with disabilities.

Charter refuses to be held accountable for broadband adoption goals, meaning it will not designate the number of low-income households it intends to connect. Nor will it commit funding for community-based organizations, which are crucial in reaching hard-to-reach customers. Nor will it agree to fund specific high-speed deployment in California’s rural areas or network upgrades. Most surprisingly, Charter will not extend its offer to low-income adults without children and people with disabilities.

But Charter is ready to fund a $67 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable, pay up to $170 million in “Golden Parachute Compensations” to the top five executives of Time Warner, and pay up to $500 to buy existing Internet customers out of competitors’ contracts.

It would be one thing if Charter’s service area in Southern California was small. But the merged company will serve more than 6.5 million households and—most importantly—more than 2.3 million low-income households, a third of which are unconnected in the service “footprint.” Charter will become the dominant Internet provider in the Los Angeles Region, where 27 percent of the state’s residents live and where 33 percent of the state’s low-income people reside. The company, in essence, is buying the Digital Divide in Southern California.

The CPUC is in a position to require Charter to make significant public benefit commitments as conditions for approval of the mergers. After all, its mission is to “serve the public interest by protecting consumers and ensuring the provision of safe, reliable utility service and infrastructure at reasonable rates, with a commitment to environmental enhancement and a healthy California economy.”

To help achieve California’s statewide goal of 80 percent broadband adoption, the CPUC must require Charter to reach at least 45 percent of the 2.3 million low-income customers in its California service area. And to do this, Charter must establish a fund—as AT&T, SBC, and Verizon have previously done—to support community-based organizations, schools and libraries that can best reach low-income customers.

The CPUC is in the driver’s seat. If it doesn’t require Charter to make significant commitments to offer affordable Internet to all of its low-income households and if it doesn’t provide funds to connect low-income people—the CPUC will not serve the public interest or economic health of California. It will not be doing its job. And Charter will dominant the Los Angeles Region without actually providing its poor residents high-speed Internet.

Sam Overton, who served from 1976 to 2012 as a deputy attorney general in the California Department of Justice, is the former president of the City of Los Angeles Commission on Disability, where he advocated on behalf of rights for the disabled.

Read More

Should Low-income Americans Get Subsidized Internet? FCC Will Decide

San Francisco Chronicle

Marissa Lang | March 28, 2016

She hadn’t meant to cut it so close, but the library was closed and she couldn’t think of where else to go, so one hour before her midterm paper was due, Shayna Smith sat outside her doctor’s office typing furiously.

Smith, 41, is on a fixed income. She’s HIV-positive and relies on dialysis to prevent her kidneys from failing. Not having the Internet at her El Cerrito home used to be the least of her problems.

Until she decided to go back to school.

“When I first got on the Internet about 15 years ago, it was exciting and new, but it didn’t seem like I needed to be connected all the time,” said Smith, who is studying to earn her associate’s degree at Contra Costa College. “But when I went back to school, I realized how fast technology had advanced. For my classes, you can barely do anything without it.”

This week, the Federal Communications Commission will debate whether to expand the agency’s Lifeline program, which was created in 1985 to offer low-income Americans with subsidies for telephone service. If approved, the expansion would allow low-income people to use Lifeline subsidies for Internet service.

Qualifying Americans would receive a $9.25 monthly subsidy for broadband Internet — which, advocates hope, would cut the cost to consumers to about $10 to $20 per month.

More than 60 million Americans, like Smith, don’t have Internet at home. About half say they can’t afford it, according to the Pew Research Center. About 6 percent of California households have no Internet access whatsoever, according to the California Emerging Technology Fund. That’s about 780,000 homes.

Read more

 

Digital Divide Is a Key Factor in Government's Review of Charter's Merger

Los Angeles Times

Meg James | March 15, 2016

For Alfonso Escobar, the Internet was once out of reach.

The 55-year-old retired bread baker from Bell had limited computer skills and couldn't afford the monthly service charge.

"It's like you can't see if you don't have glasses," said Escobar, who recently began taking an Internet skills class offered by a community group. "The Internet gives you access to the world. You can pay bills, make doctor appointments ... or keep in touch with your family. You can learn what's going on in your city, in Los Angeles, in Sacramento — and in the whole country." 

Bridging the so-called digital divide — the gulf between people who have ready access to the Internet, and those like Escobar who do not — has long been a priority of President Obama. And addressing the issue has become a key component in the government's review of a mammoth cable merger that could transform the local pay-TV landscape.

Charter Communications' proposed $67-billion plan to acquire two other cable companies — Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks — would make it the dominant pay-TV and Internet service provider in Southern California, with more than 2 million customer homes.

"Charter is not just buying a big new service area — they are buying the digital divide," said Sunne Wright McPeak, president and chief executive of the nonprofit California Emerging Technology Fund, which is working to bring computers and affordable Internet connections to more California residents.

Read full article.

Internet for All Now

The Hill

By Sunne Wright McPeak | February 23, 2016

Rarely is there a moment in time when just five people hold in their hands the destiny of millions, but such is the case for the Federal Communications Commission.  In the next few weeks, the five commissioners will decide on a Broadband Lifeline Program and the corporate consolidation application by Charter Communications to acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.  Hanging in the balance is whether or not more than one fifth of America’s poorest and most disadvantaged populations will be able to get online and participate in the digital economy.  Will the FCC take bold steps to make the Internet affordable for low-income Americans?  

Today, about one in five households are stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide, left behind at an accelerating pace without 21st-century tools to become self-sufficient taxpayers fully contributing to the nation’s overall economic productivity.  They are almost disenfranchised from the democracy itself, given how much government information and how many public services are available only online.  Students can’t do their homework or apply for college; adults can’t apply for a job or take online courses to improve their workforce skills; and people with disabilities are further isolated.  The lack of affordable high-speed Internet access is part of interrelated factors that constitute a “wall of poverty” for millions of Americans.  

The FCC has been a trailblazer during the Obama administration, including adopting rules on net neutrality, beginning to modernize E-rate for schools and libraries and approving affordable broadband programs offered by Comcast and AT&T.  Under Chairman Tom Wheeler, building upon the foundation established by Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and embracing the imperative to close the “homework gap” highlighted by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel—the FCC is moving to approve an affordable Internet subscription offer for low-income households, which will transform a Reagan administration discounted telephone service program called Lifeline.  This is to be commended.  A recent Rutgers University/Joan Ganz Cooney Center study found that more than 20 percent of families rely on mobile-only access with data limits, and don’t have home Internet service because they can’t afford it. 

Read more