Internet access is a human right, declared so by the United Nations in 2012. Yet for many residents right here in King County, access to technology and the Internet remains out of reach. This is particularly true for immigrant and refugee communities. New initiatives and efforts are being made to increase home access to the Internet, but public computer labs continue to be a critical resource for people to use computers and gain essential skills.

The Communities Connect Network (CCN) is at the forefront of digital inclusion efforts in Washington state. CCN, established 13 years ago as a coalition of individuals, organizations, government representatives and companies working for digital inclusion, was instrumental in shaping the 2008 digital inclusion and broadband legislation, signed into law by former Governor Christine Gregoire.

In 2010, CCN was the recipient of a $4.2 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Over the last two years, CCN distributed the funds to 22 public computing centers across the state, many in Seattle including: Helping Link, Chinese Information and Service Center, Multimedia Resource and Training Institute, Neighborhood House and Horn of Africa Services. The centers used the funds to purchase new computers and software and increase the amount and types of training they offered to clients. Through the BTOP grant, CCN increased the number of public computer workstations among grant recipients by 299, and centers had an average of 206 extra visitors per week in 2012. CCN also created an online statewide directory of public computer labs, allowing visitors to search by location, training options, number of computers and languages served — among other criteria.

Through my work with CCN, I have had the opportunity to see firsthand the necessity of these public computing centers in different communities. At the Yesler Lab, for example, students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade use the computers to complete their homework after school, often staying until closing time. At Horn of Africa Services, immigrant families use the computers and webcam technology to connect with family in East Africa. At Helping Link, clients learn how to create resumes using Microsoft Word – and use curriculum that has been translated into Vietnamese.

Home Internet access can be cost prohibitive for many families in our region. The City of Seattle Community Technology Program and CCN recently held a webinar about the low-cost home Internet options available for Seattle and King County residents.

Through Comcast Internet Essentials, qualifying residents can get home Internet for $9.95 per month, and a laptop computer for $149. Comcast has also partnered with school districts to connect more families to affordable broadband and digital literacy training.

CenturyLink has a similar program called Internet Basics. Locally, Interconnection offers low-cost refurbished laptop and desktop computers.

The City of Seattle just completed the first Technology Indicators survey of Seattle residents since 2009. Results will be published this fall, but a few findings are worth sharing immediately. Focus groups conducted in Vietnamese and Chinese show that there is great interest in using high-speed Internet to connect with community, but survey results indicate that Asian Pacific Islanders as a whole use the Internet less than whites.

“Income and education continue to be big contributing factors,” says David Keyes, community technology program manager at the City of Seattle.

In order for public computer labs in our region to continue providing essential Internet access and technology training, they need sustainable sources of funding. The BTOP grant has ended, and many labs are searching for ways to maintain levels of service for their clients. The state budget has infamously been all about spending cuts this year, but I implore our state senators and representatives to work creatively to meet the goals of the 2008 digital inclusion and broadband bill. The digital divide persists and continues to unfairly impact our communities of color. Equitable access to the Internet is critical for our region, and we need serious investment in digital inclusion.

City and State Technology Resources

Low-Cost Home Internet and Computers:  www.seattle.gov/tech/free_stuff/

Directory of Public Computer Labs in Washington State:  www.communitiesconnect.org/network-directory

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