Spanning The Digital Divide For Poor

The technician sat by the apartment window with a laptop on his knees, configuring the computer to pick up the Internet signal from a rooftop antenna a half a block away.

"How's the signal?" asked the apartment's resident, Nakia Keizer, watching from a sofa.

"Not bad," said Kevin Bowen, the technician.

Not bad at all, considering this wireless "hotspot" was intended not for cafe-hoppers and Internet surfers with money to burn but for urban poor who only a few years before had been fighting roof leaks and overflowing sewers.

Camfield Estates, a rebuilt 102-unit public housing development, has trimmed bushes and groomed grounds. What also sets it apart from other low-income complexes lies hidden behind its walls, atop its roof and in the airwaves.

For the past two years, Camfield has been the site of a project aiming to span the "digital divide" between impoverished Americans and those with easy access to technology.

Called the Creating Community Connections Project, it has given residents free computers to connect to the Internet using high-speed cable lines wired into every home.

Residents gather at a community computer room to take free classes on everything from how to plug in a mouse to setting up Web sites.

The project, mostly paid for with a $200,000 grant from the Kellogg Foundation and supported by companies like Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft as well as public and nonprofit entities, is now taking another step.

Now that Camfield's Internet provider has ended its two-year commitment to offer discounted cable modem access, the project's organizers will soon give residents the option of replacing their wired Internet access with a wireless connection.

The high-speed WiFi system transmits and receives data from four barely visible antennas atop the development's main building.

Residents can buy wireless cards for their desktops or laptops. The cards, which can cost up to $100 retail, will be given away to the elderly and sold for $60 to others.

After that, residents will be able to log on - for free - from anywhere within Camfield.

While wireless zones are popping up around the country in airports, coffee shops and universities, technology experts say it's unusual for such a network to explicitly serve the poor.

"It's something that's going to be replicated elsewhere, but this is, I think, the first example of a project like this emerging out of the community, rather than being required by a grant," said Anthony Townsend, a New York University professor and a co-founder of NYCwireless, an advocacy group.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral students Richard O'Bryant and Randall Pinkett asked the Camfield tenants if they wanted to host the project. The son of a well-known school committee president in Boston, O'Bryant was motivated by a desire to provide poor communities equal access to technology.

"The federal government wants to make low-income communities more self-sufficient," O'Bryant said. "They set up empowerment zones, they set up family self-sufficiency programs, but there really isn't a component there that relates to technology."

After school one day, the Camfield computer room - a community computer center that is also open to others in the neighborhood - boiled with exuberant schoolchildren playing games and surfing the Internet.

Garfield Williams, 25, who teaches in the center, said the project has kept kids out of trouble, connected infirm residents with medical information and boosted computer skills.

A resident poll found that virtually all participants used the computers to read news, learn about health and housing, or to shop online. Several said they were training to become Web designers, programmers and network administrators.

Keizer, 24, said the experiment has been a boon for him. A Camfield resident since his teen years, he's found that much of what he does - whether staying in touch with family, doing research for his graduate degree in education, or e-mailing his professors at Tufts University - is easier with the technology at his fingertips.

"It's central to what goes on in the world today," he said. "It changes lives, I feel like. It has for me."

U.S. Department of Commerce data from 2001 indicated that 78.9 percent of people in families making $75,000 or more had Internet access, compared to 25 percent of people from households earning less than $15,000 a year.

While the federal government says the divide is narrowing, consumer and public interest advocates say it remains a problem.

Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a nonprofit research group, said high-speed access often remains out of reach for the poor, and low-cost wireless Internet access could be a remedy, she said.

"Many people point to issues of democracy and public participation and dialogue, and having access to what the Internet brings is really important," she said.

By Theo Emery