The ubiquitous nature of computers on laps, desks and kitchen tables makes it easy to assume that every man, woman, child and dog in America is digitally wired.
It would be a mistake to believe that, and it would be a pity to not care.
A stubborn digital divide remains, with 28 percent of Americans still not connected to the Internet, according to EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit working to eliminate Internet inequities. Most come from low-income and minority communities, including schoolchildren falling behind in their studies, elderly people unable to access online health exchanges and job-seekers seemingly doomed to unemployment now that more than 90 percent of recruiters are hiring via social media.
The divide is deep in our progressive Twin Cities, too. A 2012 survey by the city of Minneapolis found that only 57 percent of residents of the Phillips neighborhood have computers with Internet access, as do 65 percent of residents on the Near North Side, compared with 82 percent of households citywide.
That’s why an 11th-hour save by Internet provider Comcast deserves our thanks. Comcast leapt in to partner with St. Paul-based PCs for People to offer 8,500 Twin Cities families low-priced Internet services that they were about to lose.
PCs for People’s executive director, Casey Sorensen, explained that along with giving away nearly 10,000 refurbished computers this year, his nonprofit has offered Internet services to thousands of low-income Twin Citians through a wireless-data network from Sprint.
Because, frankly, what good is a free computer without Internet access?
When Sprint suddenly announced it was shutting down its outdated network in early November, Sorensen scrambled to keep his clients connected.
Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” offers high-speed home Internet for $10 a month, plus free Wi-Fi, free installation and free Internet training. No contract or credit check is required, which sets it apart from other providers, Sorensen said.
Families getting wind of the news are jumping in to register.
“We’re up to 129 families,” Sorensen marveled as he moved swiftly around a packed room at Hamline-Midway Library, where a registration session was held on a recent weeknight. Balloons decorated every corner of the room; free sandwiches and bottled water were fast being gobbled up.
“Can I get your address?” asked PCs for People’s Brittany Graetz as she assisted a woman with four young children. “And, your e-mail?”
Graetz’s colleague Christie Roberts had been signing up clients all day at the PCs for People offices. This night, just two hours into the three-hour event, she’d signed up nearly 30 families. Her hands flew over the keyboard as she enrolled Shano Ayela, the father of two children, ages 10 and 4, who expressed his thanks for the opportunity.
To qualify, families must live in an area with Comcast service and have a child attending a school where more than 50 percent of students are eligible for the National School Lunch Program. That includes nearly 250 schools, said Comcast spokeswoman Jill Hornbacher.
Internet Essentials already serves nearly 50,000 in the Twin Cities, Hornbacher said, “and would be happy to grow. We want to make sure we’re playing our part in helping to bridge the divide.”
(To register, visit InternetEssentials.com or call 1-855-846-8376 or, for Spanish, 1-855-765-6995.)
Roberts had to tell a few disappointed parents that they don’t qualify because their children are too young (not yet in school) or too old (graduated from high school).
But most parents left the session happy and grateful, knowing that they, and more important, their children, will be part of an increasingly level playing field.
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum