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Library bridges city's digital divide

With Google Fiber coming, city looks at Internet policies


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Holgate Library branch Administrator Victoria Oglesbee works with an iPad at the Multnomah County libary branch. The library offers computer classes geared toward increasing digital literacy.Portland’s City Council is concerned that not all Portlanders will have access to Google Fiber if it comes to town.

During the first hearing on the franchise agreement with Google, Commissioners Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz both suggested that a portion of Google’s franchise fee could be allocated to help low-income residents connect to the company’s ultra high-speed broadband service.

The discussion will continue when the council votes on the agreement on June 11. But regardless of what the council ultimately decides, many Portlanders do not have regular Internet access now. Closing the digital divide has largely become the responsibility of other governments, including the Multnomah County Library and Portland Public Schools, and nonprofit organizations like Free Geek.

“Internet access is not a luxury. It’s a necessity for everything from applying for jobs to keeping in touch with your family these days,” says library director Vailey Oehlke.

Help from Free Geek

The Multnomah County Library is the largest provider of equal Internet access services in the region. Books are probably the first thing most county residents think of when they hear the word library. But, in fact, the library has been offering free Internet access and computer literacy classes to a growing number of county residents for many years.

According to library officials, those taking advantage of their Internet services include the homeless, those with homes but low incomes, immigrants, and older residents with limited computer experience. Problems that must be overcome include a lack of basic computer skills and no Internet access at home. The library has about 700 free computers with Internet access at its 19 branches. Most branches also offer staff assistance for accessing the Internet, formal classes in how to use computers and the Internet, and dedicated hours for job seekers to use the Internet.

“We offer equipment, staff, computer labs and classes in a variety of languages,” Oehlke says.

During the last fiscal year, the library documented nearly 2 million Internet-related interactions. They included 856,536 personal computer sessions, 727,359 Wi-Fi sessions, and 1,305 classes attended by 8,259 people. The largest number of classes attended by the most people were held at the Central Library and the Midland and North Portland branches.

As noted during a May 7 council hearing, the school district also is providing Internet access for both its students and their parents. Fish singled out Rosa Parks elementary school in North Portland, which has a waiting area with computers for parents picking up their children.

Another access provider is Free Geek, a nonprofit organization that refurbishes and provides free computer equipment to qualifying community residents. Free Geek also offers 25 monthly classes on subjects ranging from computer basics to building and operating websites.

So far this year, 242 people have received computers through the organization’s Build and Adoption programs. Free Geek disbursed 789 systems to program participants last year. In addition, more than 550 people have taken formal classes this year. Last year the number was 1,750.

“Laying cable alone will absolutely be beneficial to Portland’s business community and outlook. If we are serious about conquering the digital divide, though, we need to pay attention to affordability, necessary and related technology, and education,” says Darren Heiber, Free Geek’s director of public services.

According to Heiber, Free Geek would be glad to partner with Portland on a project to provide more free computers, training and broadband access to underserved residents.

Personal Telco failure

City officials are aware that many Portlanders do not have Internet access. For example, a 2009 regional survey found that a large percentage of lower income and minority households did not have Internet access, primarily because of issues of affordability and perceived lack of relevance.

“In Multnomah County, nearly half of the residents whose household income is less than $30,000 annually are without Internet access at home, compared to just 5 percent of residents earning more than $60,000,” according to the survey, which also found that one in six households with Internet access were not satisfied with its speed.

The city has made several efforts to increase Internet access, with mixed results. When Erik Sten was a commissioner, he supported a plan to provide free Wi-Fi service throughout the city. The city did not provide any funds for the project, however, and the nonprofit organization that undertook the task — Personal Telco — failed miserably.

But the city also has supported Internet access through grants approved by the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission, which it belongs to. They are financed by a 3 percent Public Education and Government fee on Comcast and Century Link bills. And the city has been donating all of its older computers to Free Geek for reuse.

“This partnership has allowed us to provide necessary computers to Portland-area students through our Plug Into Portland program. Many participants have indicated that this is the first computer in their home. It has also greatly expanded our capacity to support nonprofits, schools, religious and other community support organizations through Hardware Grants,” Heiber says.

More recently, the council included greater Internet access as a goal of its Broadband Technology Plan, which was approved in 2011. “For those who lag behind in adoption, there’s a real danger they will fall behind in opportunity and remain or become marginalized,” according to the plan.

Among other things, the plan, which has not been fully funded, calls for the establishment of a regional task force on digital inclusion policy, which has not yet been appointed and staffed. That could change if Google Fiber comes to Portland, however. Under the plan, the council is encouraged to allocate 20 percent of new cable and broadband franchise fees to increasing Internet access. The council seemed open to making Google the first funding source for that purpose at a mid-May franchise hearing.