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“The cruel irony of the digital divide” in Colorado: Urban poor are left behind even as access, technology improves

While state and federal programs in Colorado focus on rural internet access, private firms and nonprofits are stepping up to help low-income urban households get online for under $15

John Mclean is on a limited budget and is eligible for service at PCs for People, a nonprofit that sells refurbished computers and discounted internet. He's helped by Fabian Vazquez, a customer service rep for the nonprofit, on September 4, 2019 at the retail store on Alameda Ave. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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When money is tight, Elysia Lucero has to make a choice: Pay the internet bill or buy food for her family. 

She bought food last month.

On Wednesday, she stopped by the PCs for People store on West Alameda Avenue to take care of the unpaid internet bill.

“We can’t live without the internet,” said Lucero, whose service had been cut off.

At least her family qualifies for internet access that is relatively affordable at less than $15 a month, compared to the $50 to $100 that many households in metro Denver pay. More low-income Coloradans today qualify for discounted options available from nonprofits like PCs for People or from corporations such as Comcast, which recently expanded its $9.95 Internet Essentials service to anyone qualifying for any type of federal assistance. 

At the PCs for People store at 1548 W. Alameda Ave. in Denver, the nonprofit sells wireless internet for people with qualified low incomes. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

But efforts to keep broadband prices below $15 a month appear to be relegated to companies or nonprofit organizations. Attempts to close the digital divide by legislators focus on rural communities, where internet infrastructure doesn’t exist. Sometimes after those communities finally get service, broadband prices can soar into the triple digits.

“There’s much more attention on the rural issue, and I never want to distract from that,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which advocates for digital equity. “But there’s a clear link of poverty and not having internet at home. We end up with the same problem, where only those who can afford it sign up for it. And if you follow that logical conclusion, the federal government is deploying it in rural areas where only the higher incomes can afford it.”

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Support for rural more popular

Colorado has seen vast improvement in rural broadband coverage with 86% of the state’s rural households now having adequate service compared with 77% two years ago, according to the Colorado Broadband Office.

Access in urban areas, such as Denver is 99.94%, which is why the office focuses on areas with no access, its director Tony Neal-Graves told The Sun. Adequate access is defined as download speeds of at least 25 mbps down, 3 mbps up, which is fast enough to watch videos online and also the minimum goal for federal government-funded projects.

Comcast is expanding its gigabit internet — about 40 times faster than the federal minimum — to the mountain communities of Eagle and Gypsum, where residents have been stuck with slow internet at high prices. 

“For us, the challenge is the Front Range will pay $70 to $80. But we’ll pay the same price for 12 up and 2 down. What we’re paying is for internet that was fast 15 years ago,” said Brandy Reitter, Eagle’s town manager. “In the Town of Eagle, (Comcast’s low-income) Internet Essentials will help some, but Eagle tends to be a higher income community so I don’t know if you’ll see many who qualify. For the most part, (residents) will pay market rate.”

It’s a sore subject with Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which supports community-owned broadband.

“Almost all (public) subsidies are going to households with zero access as opposed to households with zero money,” said Mitchell, who works on digital-divide issues. “The political dynamic is that there are no opponents to working on rural broadband. … If you start to look into investing in broadband for lower-income users, you make the cable companies nervous because it increases competition.”

Cable companies have a reputation for becoming competitive only when there’s a threat of new competition. In 2017, a campaign opposing the city of Fort Collins’ attempt to start its own internet service was largely funded by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, according to a campaign report filing. The telecom group lost. And Fort Collins launched its Connexion broadband service last week, with service starting at $60 a month.

Telecom companies also supported the state’s passage of a rural broadband bill in 2018. The Financing Rural Broadband Deployment bill provided up to $115 million in grants to build rural broadband networks. Approximately 760 filings were made by lobbyists on that bill, including from representatives of Comcast and Charter Communications. Charter has limited cable service operations in Colorado, while Comcast doesn’t usually chase rural. 

“Part of the reason we see the Comcasts of the world supporting rural, or at least being in less opposition to rural broadband efforts, is they just don’t have the capital to build broadband,” said Brandy DeLange, a lobbyist who focuses on broadband policies for the Colorado Municipal League, which represents 271 municipalties statewide. “On the Western Slope, for instance, it’s difficult to put in the infrastructure, blasting through rocks and things like that. It’s too cost prohibitive so that’s why you’re seeing this willingness to support it.”

But Mitchell remains skeptical about major telecom’s intentions.

“Why would Comcast invest so much in lobbying for a program when it’s not considering (putting) any money into it?” Mitchell said. “It’s obvious that their priority is against  government-created competition.”

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Urban poor in Colorado

According to the U.S. Census’ American Community Survey, more than 20 million Americans have no access to broadband — wired or wireless. Of those, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance estimates that 15 million people live in urban and suburban communities.  

“It’s available to urban folks. They could get a mobile phone, but they’re not. And why not? You can’t tell me that 15 million people don’t think the internet is useful,” said Siefer, with the Alliance. “Cost is the primary factor.”

But when people don’t have internet access at home, or they have to pay per byte, it affects how the family operates in modern society, she said. 

“Some just use it less. They don’t talk to their kid’s teachers by email. They don’t get the newsletters that schools send out, which are only going out by email now. They’re not looking at their personal health records. They’re not online,” she said. “It’s when they manage to get themselves to a library, or a Walmart or a McDonalds (to use free Wi-Fi). But you’re in these places with your kids. What if you need to do homework? Those of us who have broadband at home don’t realize how hard this can be.”

Her organization publishes a guide to discount internet options and has mapped out U.S. households with and without internet.

Legislation focused on affordable broadband for low-income urban households has been rare, if at all. None immediately come to mind for Jesse Burne. Burne has been at the forefront of closing the urban digital divide in his job as digital inclusion manager for the Denver Housing Authority.

He helped build a program to offer affordable internet to the housing authority’s 26,000 residents. It includes training people in how to use the internet for school, taxes and health care. 

DHA now works with four internet providers — Comcast, Starry, Live Wire Networks and PCs for People — to offer internet for under $15 a month to its residents. It’s a work in progress, he said.

“Our initial findings show that 45% of the low-income communities we serve do not have access to quality internet so parents can check on grades and homework of their kids, or seniors who need to access healthcare options,” Burne said. “When I go talk to resident councils about what the price points are and that they’re $15 and under, their eyes light up. They get really excited. Before that, they either had no internet or were paying $45 or more and displacing other things they need.”

That’s a common theme among shoppers at the PCs for People store. John Mclean, who lives in the Denver area, said he has free internet at home. His mom pays for it. But he couldn’t afford it otherwise and would probably just rely on his mobile phone.

“Internet or TV, that’s kind of how it goes,” said Mclean, who was picking up a $50 computer for his niece so she could do her homework. “It’s like you try to get the cheapest out there, but you can’t necessarily afford both.”

PCs for People gets computers donated from businesses, wipes them and fixes and refurbishes them to sell cheaply to low-income residents. Buyers must prove their eligibility by showing their Medicaid or EBT cards. The maximum annual income for one person is $24,980 while income for a family of four is up to $51,500.

“I just got off the phone with someone who called our national line. She was asking about the internet. She said ‘I have to make the choice of having this or electricity.’ That’s an extreme example,” said Antony “Tony” Frank, business development manager for the PCs for People Denver office. “But other people tell us ‘I can only do the internet today and I’ll come back for a computer later.’ Sometimes, they can only buy one month.”

A wireless 4G modem is available for $80 at PCs for People, a nonprofit that offers computers and internet services to low-income households. Wireless service is an additional $10 to $15 a month, depending on what monthly plan is ordered. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

The organization works with wireless providers Mobile Beacon and Mobile Citizen to offer an at-cost 4G modem for $80. Wireless data plans range from $11 to $15 a month. Frank said he realizes even those prices are too high for some people. So a few years ago, PCs for People partnered with the Denver Public Library to let patrons check out a modem like a book for three weeks. Unlimited data was included during the loan. 

It started with 50 modems but the program became so popular, the library purchased more. It now has 125. They are constantly checked out and as of Wednesday, there were 185 people on the waiting list to borrow a modem.

“They never stay in the library. They never sit on a shelf,” said Tracy Treece, the library’s digital inclusion manager. “We’ve expanded it every year. We just got some new ones in circulation.”

The most demand comes from Denver’s poorest neighborhoods, Montbello, Athmar Park and the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales branch on West Colfax Avenue. Anyone with a library card can borrow a modem.

“It’s definitely an equity issue,” Treece said. “It’s people who don’t have access at home.”

The $9.95 broadband service 

To kick off the company’s expanded low-income broadband program, Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen showed up in Denver last month to speak at a Colorado Women’s Foundation lunch event. He brought the conversation close to home by pointing out that in one of Denver’s poorest neighborhoods, Sun Valley, nearly three-quarters of its residents don’t have wired internet service at home.

“The cruel irony of the digital divide is that the more the internet advances, the more you can do on the internet, the further behind it leaves people without internet access who happen to be the very people who would most benefit from its equalizing potential,” said Cohen, also Comcast’s chief diversity officer.  

Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen oversees the company’s Internet Essentials program, which offers discounted broadband service for $9.95 per month to eligible low-income households. Cohen spoke at the Colorado Women’s Foundation lunch on August 23, 2019 to announce the expansion of the program. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun).

While residents may be relying on service from their mobile phones, Cohen doesn’t consider that acceptable. “You are not going to write a term paper on a cell phone,” he said. “It (mobile data) is expensive. You’re going to run through all your data.” 

Comcast has offered its $9.95 Internet Essentials since 2011. Download speeds are currently 15 mbps, with 3 up. It started with pilot programs in certain regions — one offered the service to low-income seniors in Florida. Another targeted community college students in Colorado. The pilots are over and Cohen said the service is now open to all low-income households on any sort of federal assistance, from the National School Lunch Program, Medicaid, Pell Grants, SNAP and other federal programs. 

In Colorado, 76,000 households are using the discounted service, according to Comcast. That translates into 304,000 people in the state if one averages four people per household, which Comcast does. Nationally, the program has 2 million customers that serve about 8 million people.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that people are using it,” Cohen said. 

While there has been some criticism about the offered speeds or Comcast’s intentions, the company keeps plugging away. A key feature is that in addition to low-priced internet, Comcast built a program to include low-cost computers and digital literacy training to teach people the relevance of the internet and how they can best use it.

And it’s winning accolades from some of its harshest critics, like Mitchell, with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“I have conflicting feelings about this because I feel what Comcast is doing is important for millions of people. $10 is a very good price for the majority of people who are in economic distress,” Mitchell said. “But the other thing about broadband is if you’re wealthy enough that you don’t qualify, you’re looking at $60 to $70 a month if you add in fees. There’s a real market failure there that allows Comcast to charge a lot more than if there were competing options.”

But, he added, “If you look at AT&T, CenturyLink and Charter, if you look at the top competitors, they’re not doing anything like this or not to this scale. Comcast has people in it that care deeply about this. I’m glad Comcast’s management is listening to them.”

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