When talking about internet access in Madison, Alyssa Kenney often reminisces about when she was executive director for the Kennedy Heights Community Center. After she would lock up the building at night, she said, families and children would gather outside with their phones or laptops. The center’s free and open Wi-Fi was their only source of internet.

Kenney now works full time to help those people. As the executive director of the nonprofit DANEnet, she has embraced a mission of improving digital literacy in the community, and speaking out about the significance of “digital equity” — the idea that all people in society should have access to digital tools.

Since last fall, DANEnet has been a key partner in a municipal effort to expand internet access to several low-income neighborhoods called Connecting Madison. As part of that effort, the nonprofit operates Everyone On Madison, a program that offers free digital literacy workshops, cheap refurbished computers, and other services to help families get connected and stay connected.

According to Kenney, the goal is to get a thousand refurbished computers to families and to help a thousand new households get connected by the end of 2018.

 

Give us the 10,000-foot view: What does the "digital divide" and the issue of internet access look like in Madison?

The 10,000-foot view is that there are 14,000 households disconnected in Dane County. That's a little bit less than 10 percent of low-income families. For some of those families, they're relying on phones and data plans; for some of those families, there’s simply no internet access.

Why that's a problem is because you just today cannot fully participate in society, in democracy, in the economy, in fun. For all those things, you really need broadband access to make things more accessible, more equitable. Digital equity is really a critical community issue.

What's exciting about the issue here is that we have the connectivity available. The broadband is here. It's in the city of Madison. It's not like a rural community, where the issue is a giant capital project. The issue here is about affordability and accessibility.

In the past, you've characterized it as a “last-yard” problem (as in, there's only one final yard to go).

Yeah. For families, the internet may be in their building, or in the road in front of their house.

Two big providers have come out with low-income programs. AT&T has this AT&T Access program. What we call Madison Charter, but is now called Spectrum, has an Internet Assist program.

I was looking at prices for those. It’s about $5-$15 a month, right?

Yes, it's absolutely finally affordable. The City of Madison has their own Connecting Madison service that they're piloting in four neighborhoods — $10 a month also.

With Connecting Madison, the connection speed for the neighborhoods in question will be 10 megabits per second. Can you give us a sense of what that kind of connection will get you?

What I tell people when I do workshops is 10 mbps is “one-computer Netflix fast.” You can be streaming off of one device with that type of speed.

When you want to start wanting to do what many middle-class families do, and have a young kid doing an educational game over here, and one person watching Netflix there, 10 megabits isn't sufficient for that.

What we're doing is promoting some access, and not necessarily supplanting television for example — cable services.

Tell me more about the digital literacy courses you’re offering in these neighborhoods.

I would say the majority (of students) are people who need very basic digital literacy. They're still learning how to use a keyboard, how to manipulate a mouse, what a touchpad is, how to open and close applications, how to download something.

We generally start our classes with computer basics: What's hardware, what's software, what's an operating system? (We’re) pointing out the components of a computer, and then going through jargon-y terms: What is social media? What is a document?

Adults want to learn what's useful for them, not what's necessarily in the curriculum. So we always try to keep it pretty fluid. If they're really interested in their Facebook privacy settings, we'll go through that. Or if they want to go through (the school district's online parent portal) Infinite Campus to see their child's attendance, we'll go through that. 

Then we see younger adults. I call them the cellphone or the smartphone generation. It's almost like they missed desktop computer literacy. They're so savvy on Snapchat and Facebook and social media and using their phone to find instant information. But could they use Google Docs, or could they use a desktop computer really efficiently for employment or homework?

The other exciting part of Everyone On Madison is we're helping families get low-cost computers. They take a digital literacy class with us, and at the end of the class, with $50 they can buy a desktop computer.

For years, the city has been looking at potentially building out its fiber-optic network. Do you have thoughts on that?

The state Legislature is going to control a lot of that, and the city's own limited resources. At DANEnet, we always want affordable broadband, and we always want broadband choice. The city creating more competition will help consumer prices and consumer services, and increase speeds. I think it would be promising if the city were to move forward with fiber to the premise.

What I'd like to see is the city to get a little more fire in the belly around digital equity. Madison really has the potential to be one of the most connected cities. The devices are here, the connectivity is here.

What specifically would you like to see happen at the municipal level with regard to digital equity?

I just want it to be an equal or as important issue with many of the other important social justice issues that this community keeps thinking about. That when we're working on services, or building new housing, or upgrading existing housing, that broadband activity gets looked at just like electricity. Broadband to every low-income family is critical.

Beyond government, who else is engaged with this issue?

There’s a lot of nonprofits engaged: the Literacy Network, the Catholic Multicultural Center, the Urban League. Almost all the community centers have a computer lab that sometimes has some kind of staff support, or some occasional classes. Many of the senior coalitions offer occasional classes — we're doing classes right now for the North/East Side Senior Coalition.

The libraries have also been doing digital literacy work, and helping people with technology.

All those services are important, but now we really need a coalition surrounding digital equity. It's sort of like the food pantry movement: At first, it was like, OK, you need food. But then, we wanted to make sure, is your housing stable, are you safe at home? We started making sure that there were other supports in place when we were running vibrant food pantries.

Digital equity should be the same. Do you have digital literacy? Great. Do you have a working device at home? Does it need fixing? Do you have access at home, or are you depending on free labs? I want to expand the conversation with digital literacy, and make sure we're not just offering one-off opportunities.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.