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A relatively large portion of Baltimore residents don’t have access to technology or the Internet, and the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the city’s digital divide.
The pandemic, for the most part, has largely forced the world to resort to remote work, telehealth, virtual learning and online shopping— all of which require internet service. However, a lot of Baltimore’s underprivileged students, employees and medical patients, many of whom are Black, don’t have the services they need.
Fortunately, the Biden Administration has launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, an initiative designed to help less fortunate families and households acquire affordable internet service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through this new program that launched May 12, 2021, eligible households will have access to more job opportunities, critical healthcare services, virtual classrooms and much more, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Local nonprofit and Internet service provider (ISP), PCs for People is one of the organizations leading the charge in closing the digital divide in Baltimore City. PCs for People, one of the national leaders in digital inclusion, aims to get low-cost computers and affordable broadband internet into low-income households.
The organization, headquartered in Minneapolis, Minn., has an electronic recycling service and urges computer users to lend their used devices to PCs for People rather than discard them so that they can be refurbished for distribution.
It serves eight markets: St. Paul, Minn., Mankato, Minn., Denver, Cleveland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Mo., Oak Forest, Ill., and Belleville, Ill. Those who are not enculturated to the digital world cannot compete economically, said Gary Bonner, the executive director of PCs for People-Baltimore. There are 90,000 households in Baltimore without computers or Internet access, he highlighted.
“This is a completely solvable problem, to be able to get people connected to the Internet, get them computers and make sure they know how to use them,” Bonner said.
To fill out job and college applications, conduct banking transactions, perhaps attend a Zoom meeting or schedule a telehealth appointment, having internet access is an absolute must, he pointed out.
“In a city like Baltimore, you must be digitally literate,” said Bonner, a native of East Baltimore. “We only have 610,000 people who live in Baltimore. And for that number of houses to have no computer, no internet helps you understand why the city remains at a poverty rate of 22 percent, and why 40 percent of the city residents earn less than the calculated living wage for Baltimore.”
Here’s how the EBB program works, as outlined by the FCC:
The program will provide a discount of up to $50 per month towards broadband service for eligible households and a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
EBB is limited to one monthly service discount and one device discount per household. To see the criteria that qualify an individual or a household for the EBB program, or to apply, visit this link: https://www.fcc.gov/broadbandbenefit.
PCs for People’s local office is at 2901 E. Biddle St., where community members are trained to refurbish computers for reuse. Since PCs for People-Baltimore opened July 2020, it has distributed 3,800 computers to households and more than 2,000 computers to Baltimore City Public Schools students, according to Bonner.
The organization has recently established a six-week internship program that will teach students how to refurbish computers and become digital navigators, which will involve helping others understand how to use their technological devices.
The first cohort of 15 interns are mainly students ranging from ages 16 to 23.
On August 5, 2021, PCs for People hosted an event at Gilmor Homes where more than 300 devices (combination of desktop computers and laptops) were given away while signing community members up for EBB. Bonner and his team are among those leading the efforts in closing the digital divide, which is more than providing Internet access— it’s about creating life-changing opportunities.
“Closing the digital divide is much more than just getting people computers,” Bonner said. “It is enculturation to technology.”
PCs for People still needs more businesses to donate their retired technology, and is in search of establishments to partner with, as an ITAD (information technology asset disposition).