4 out of 10 in Philly lack home Internet

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ernestine Volcy and sons Jar-EL, 18 (left), and Sean, 15, have Web access at home after signing up for a low-cost service.
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ernestine Volcy and sons Jar-EL, 18 (left), and Sean, 15, have Web access at home after signing up for a low-cost service.
Posted: March 07, 2013

Candyce McNeill made a big move last summer.

The bubbly 27-year-old left slow, sunny Georgia with her two young kids for fast-paced Philadelphia.

She began a job search, but quickly hit a wall. She couldn't afford Internet at home, which meant that she couldn't easily apply for the many jobs that require online applications.

She signed up for public assistance to make ends meet.

"As a parent, it does hold me back," she said, referring to her lack of Internet access. "I have to be the provider. I have to be able to go out there and get a job."

Four out of every 10 Philadelphians don't have Internet access at home, according to the latest study by the Pew Research Center.

The past couple years, city officials, businesses and institutions have ramped up efforts to tackle a "digital divide." Despite spending millions of dollars, they said they aren't close to finishing the task.

"We're not happy," said Adel Ebeid, the city's chief innovation officer. "I don't think we're going to be happy until everyone has an equal opportunity."

Many, from Philadelphia's first lady, Lisa Nutter, to Free Library officials to Phillies co-owner John Middleton, have helped bridge the digital divide here.

But the Freedom Rings Partnership and cable giant Comcast have arguably made two of the biggest attempts.

Given the scale of the divide, it's worth looking at how these initiatives have helped - and how they've fallen short.

The Freedom Rings Partnership, consisting of city agencies, nonprofits, Drexel University and the Urban Affairs Coalition, has used a $18 million federal grant to launch 79 free computer labs in the city.

Since 2011, people have visited the labs more than 280,500 times.

McNeill was a frequent visitor. She went to a West Philly lab - known as a KEYSPOT - to apply online for work. After searching for months, she landed a customer-service job at Enterprise car rentals in December.

"I really thank God for that KEYSPOT," she said.

But the computer labs aren't being used by everyone in need. Arun Prabhakaran, the Urban Affairs Coalition's director of government and strategic partnerships, said that's because many residents don't believe they need Internet.

"That's the biggest challenge," Prabhakaran said. "What we've been doing is really explaining to people how immediately it's so relevant to daily life. Most jobs, like close to 80 percent of jobs, require that you apply online."

Comcast introduced a deeply discounted Internet program in 2011. Families whose children qualify for free or reduced federal lunches can get broadband service for $9.95 a month. They can also get a $150 refurbished computer during the sign-up process

Five percent of Philadelphia's eligible households are now using Comcast's low-cost service. Still, Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen said adding more users has been challenging.

"It's a very difficult population," he said. "It's a broadband-resistant population."

Cohen said the company has been working closely with the city's School District to tell residents about the service. To get more people involved, Comcast just announced that it is expanding its eligibly requirements so that students at parochial and private schools can also qualify.

Some residents may not sign up for the deal because they think it's too good to be true.

Ernestine Volcy, a North Philadelphia mother of four, thought the service would have hidden fees. Even after speaking to a Comcast representative by phone, she didn't buy it.

She only signed up after her son told her about the book shortage at his public school. He couldn't bring books home sometimes, but they were accessible online.

"It's sad they don't have enough books to go around," Volcy said. "That's one of the reasons why he stayed on me and said, 'Mom, listen, I really need to have Internet.' "

What else can be done to narrow the digital divide in Philadelphia?

Some advocates argue that there should be more up-to-date data on the scope of Philadelphia's problem. Others believe there should be better low-cost Internet options for seniors and people without children.

Ebeid, meanwhile, thinks that Philadelphia needs more "muscle from the corporate world" in the fight against the digital divide. For instance, Google has announced that it will provide free Wi-Fi for a part of New York.

Maybe Philly should be next.

Holly Otterbein writes for It's Our Money, a joint project of the Daily News and WHYY funded by the William Penn Foundation, that works to shed light on where your tax dollars are going.

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