A pilot program bringing affordable, high-speed internet access to four low-income Madison neighborhoods is just weeks from going online.
The initiative, called Connecting Madison, is meant to close the digital divide by making affordable internet access available for as little as $10 per month to residents in Allied Drive, Darbo-Worthington, Brentwood and Kennedy Heights apartments.
“The divide we’re talking about is not just a divide in education and employment, but it’s a social and cultural divide, which presents incredible challenges for our community,” Mayor Paul Soglin said.
This public-private collaboration aims to make the city more digitally inclusive for all residents.
“Without connectivity, families are at a profound and distinct disadvantage,” said Alyssa Kenney, DANEnet executive director. DANEnet, the project’s digital literacy partner, will coordinate educational services in the four selected communities.
Kenney estimated there are nearly 14,000 households in Dane County without internet access, including students struggling to complete homework and communicate with teachers and job seekers applying online.
“Technology is the great amplifier of human intentions and when people don’t have access to digital society, their participation is muted and their quality of life is negatively affected,” Kenney said.
Sina Davis, an Allied Drive resident and community leader, emphasized senior residents and college students would greatly benefit from this program.
The city’s Digital Technology Committee selected ResTech, a local internet provider, to implement the pilot project. ResTech owner Bryan Schenker said construction is underway in Darbo-Worthington and the permitting process for Allied Drive is complete with Brentwood and Kennedy Heights to follow.
Felicia Davis, a Brentwood neighborhood program coordinator, said the program could become a huge asset in the neighborhood that has residents without internet access.
ResTech is utilizing fiber technology and taking advantage of the existing Metropolitan Unified Fiber Network (MUFN) that already services city buildings and schools. Schenker said this is “reliable” technology for delivering the 10 megabit per second internet service.
Customers can pay about $20, $30 and $50 for faster download speeds of 20, 50 or 100 megabits per second with the option of adding TV and landline phone service.
“The investment the city of Madison makes today is going to last,” Schenker said.
Closing Madison’s digital divide will not be accomplished without addressing more than just connectivity, said Digital Technology Committee chair Lauren Kieliszewski. This led to addressing access to devices and education with a number of pilot project partners.
In addition to private partners DANEnet and ResTech, Cascade Asset Management will work with corporate donors in the Madison area like CUNA Mutual and American Family Insurance to donate retired laptops and desktop computers.
DANEnet will coordinate refurbishment and distribution of the devices to residents. The computers come equipped with a Microsoft Windows operating system, mouse, keyboard and monitor.
Ald. Maurice Cheeks, District 10, who represents Allied Drive, said the pilot project builds off of existing work of neighbors investing in their neighborhood.
“So many of us have been saying for a long time that access to internet needs to be a basic right and that it, in fact, is and should be considered as a utility,” said Cheeks, a technology executive at Madison-based software company Miosoft. “The fact that we have so many partners here that we are stepping up … prioritizing Allied Drive to take additional steps is amazing.”
Next steps of the pilot project include completing implementation and evaluating the lessons learned. Soglin emphasized creating a city-wide strategy for providing high-speed internet access to remain competitive with other cities across the world and nation.
“Not just what we can download, but what we really want, to be a part of the future of the nation’s economy, what we can upload from the homes and businesses within reach of where we walk and where we speak today,” Soglin said. “It’s complicated, it’s challenging.”
A consultant’s report released in August estimated it could cost between $143 and $150 million to create a city-wide municipal broadband system.