As Madison moves forward with an internet pilot in four low-income neighborhoods, the city and provider are grappling with how to ensure success once the network is in place.
In September, a city selection committee chose local company ResTech Services to provide low-cost fiber optic internet service to homes in two of the proposed neighborhoods – Kennedy Heights and Darbo-Worthington. This month, the City Council approved a budget amendment to cover the expansion in Allied Drive and Brentwood as well.
Installation of the fiber, costing $511,929, will likely start in the spring, with the full network up and running by fall 2016.
But internet access alone will only address part of the technology gap known as the digital divide.
Once the network is in place, residents will need a subscription, a computer or other device and basic computer literacy skills to actually access the service.
“You connect things, you assume that once you do that magic’s going to happen,” said Kennedy Heights Community Center executive director Claude Gilmore. “You have to prepare the community.”
In the Madison area, more than 12 percent of residents did not have internet access as of 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The same data showed about 9 percent, or almost one in 10, Madison area residents didn’t own a computer.
Gilmore said they want to make sure people have access to devices and plans to reach out to local businesses for donations and partnership.
“We think having a computer in every household would be wonderful,” Gilmore said.
He also said they hope to have training with ResTech or non-profit DANEnet so community members can utilize the service. Usability tops even price point or accessibility as a barrier to internet use, according to 2015 Pew Research Center data. Respondents said it’s too difficult, they’re too old to learn or they don’t know how. Most newcomers to the technology would need assistance, the study found.
To address that need, DANEnet submitted a technology education proposal to the city’s Digital Technology Committee, requesting $20,000 to fund basic education and technical support in the four neighborhoods.
Madison chief information officer Paul Kronberger said the city is exploring citizen education opportunities and will determine whether it needs to put out a request for proposals for that component.
Gilmore said he’s pushing the city to start meetings with residents now, so they understand what the opportunity presents and how they can take advantage of it.
ResTech Owner Bryan Schenker said part of outreach will simply be installing the network in the neighborhoods.
“We’re going to be working right outside their yards putting in the network,” Schenker said. “It’s going to be hard not to notice that.”
He said there will also be notices going out to all of the neighbors in the area as part of the permitting process for installation, staff will go door to door to distribute information and the company will work with community centers or other gathering spaces to spread information.
“As far as how many people we expect to actually sign up, I guess we don’t know the answer to that,” Kronberger said. “It’s an extremely low price, so I’m hoping it’s attractive to most people. I guess it really just depends on the individuals.”
One of the challenges will be language barriers, Gilmore said. In Kennedy-Heights, there is a large Southeast Asian population, speaking Hmong, Laotian, Thai and Khmer, or Cambodian. There are also Spanish-speakers and other languages present in the four neighborhoods.
Schenker said he hadn’t thought about the language barriers yet – they do have Spanish-speaking staff, but not other languages.
“One of the things we can do is find a resource for translation of the notices that we put out there,” Schenker said, considering the possibilities. “We want this to work, and we want this to work for everybody. It’s the whole reason we put the proposal out there.”
In conjunction with the pilot, Madison will be pursuing a feasibility study and cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to expand the internet service to other parts of the city in the future.
The city is working with Columbia Telecommunications Corporation for the feasibility study component as a parallel track to the pilot.
The pilot will be two years, and Kronberger said they hope to have enough data to do the cost-benefit analysis after about one year of operation.