May 24, 2012
It has been a year since the Freedom Rings Partnership (FRP) received $18.2 million in Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) federal stimulus funds to bring broadband opportunities to low-income Philadelphians. The Partnership’s accomplishments are already extraordinary. FRP launched 76 Public Computing Centers and dozens of digital literacy trainings that provide Philadelphia residents with the tools they need to achieve their educational and professional goals. But as the program enters the second and final year of its grant, program leaders are considering how to sustain what they have managed to build.
The FRP, also known as the Philadelphia KEYSPOTS program, includes grassroots organizations, city government, and local universities. Together, they leverage their resources and expertise to bring Internet technology to Philadelphia in order to give all city residents equal opportunity to achieve their educational, employment, and community goals. One FRP partner, the Media Mobilizing Project, produced and edited a videoshowcasing the FRP’s efforts to build KEYSPOTS, which are free and publicly accessible computer centers and digital literacy trainings in underserved neighborhoods.
“Digital literacy and computer access give individuals and communities the chance to learn skills critical to surviving in an information-based society,” said Dr. Todd Wolfson, Assistant Professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Rutgers University, who researches FRP’s impact on broadband adoption in Philadelphia. “This is the basis for KEYSPOTS—using new technologies to reimagine a Philadelphia where everyone has a chance to build their future, and play an active role in the life of the city.”
And yet there is still more to be done. Data released by the FCC show that up to half of Philadelphia’s inner-city residents don’t have home access to the Internet, while many more struggle to get the support they need to become fully computer literate. That’s why the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) and the Urban Affairs Coalition are leading partnership-wide conversations with the FRP’s nine managing organizations and the community anchor institutions hosting trainings (or PCCs) to consider how to sustain their work after the federal grant ends in June 2013.
This May, OIT and UAC hosted the second Sustainability Forum for partners. Partner organizations talked about how they applied for BTOP because they understand how technology amplifies their work around health, education, and employment. However, without financial resources to replace the federal grants, they fear that their organizations might be strained to keep the programs alive.
"When an effort like the computer centers comes and goes, it is really hard on the communities they have been a part of, and it makes it harder to build trust in the future” said Alix Webb, the Media Mobilizing Project’s Computer Center Site Coordinator, during a small-group breakout session at the May forum. “As the Partnership thinks about long-term sustainability, we should keep in mind the expectations we've built and the need that is there for this service so it doesn't just disappear suddenly or is just on partners individually to maintain it on our own.”
If these trainings and centers lose financial support, it is not just organizations that could be strained, but the future of Philadelphia. “If we imagine how Philadelphia should look in 2025 or 2050, we want to see a city with high rates of employment, a strong public education system, a 21st century economy and an engaged populace focused on the future of the city,” Dr. Wolfson said. “This can only come to pass if we begin to prepare ourselves for 2050 today, by creating and sustaining programs and infrastructure that make sure all Philadelphians are prepared for tomorrow. Freedom Rings speaks to this problem and is one of the cornerstones of a digitally connected Philadelphia.”
We can ensure the program’s sustainability now. In addition to seeking foundation and private funding to continue these programs, the FCC could invest in current digital literacy programs in addition to new digital literacy programs with its Lifeline/Linkup program. Unfortunately, the FCC proposed to limit this funding to just Eligible Telecommunications Carriers (ETCs) and to communities without digital literacy trainings. But there’s still time to contact the FCC on this issue by filing a comment online.
Learn more about the Freedom Rings Partnership and KEYSPOTS. And check out Media Mobilizing Project’s video about the computer centers on the top right.