Downtown Raleigh's Chavis Heights neighborhood boasts a perk that would be a plum in any community, but all the more so in public housing: universal broadband Internet access for all residents.
Unlimited e-mailing and Internet surfing are privileges few here could afford until last fall, when this low-income subsidized housing community was turned into a free Wi-Fi hotspot.
The free Wi-Fi service offers a lifeline to resources that are no longer optional in today's world: the job market, online courses, health care and finance.
"I don't see how people survive without it," said Racquel Williams, a single mother in Chavis Heights who's taking online classes toward a master's degree. "It's a necessity - it's like water."
Chavis Heights is a recent addition to a 10-year-old national effort to link public housing communities to the Internet, where the rest of the world is migrating to find jobs, pay bills, do homework, shop and gossip. As part of the project, the nearby Heritage Park community, also in south downtown, is set to get its own Wi-Fi zone by autumn.
About 375,000 people across the country live in these low-income Wi-Fi zones, through the efforts of One Economy, a Washington nonprofit with a small office in Winston-Salem. The money for the projects is donated by AT&T, local housing agencies and, recently, by the federal stimulus.
The mission is to give the poor the technology and tools needed to function in an increasingly digital society. The free Wi-Fi zones are supplemented by Internet training courses for residents taught by AmeriCorps volunteers. The four one-hour courses cover the spectrum from how to use a mouse and set up an e-mail account to finding online resources for résumés and job searches.
But even zero-cost Internet service is not enough to turn all low-income residents into cyber-citizens. The uptake rate among residents in Raleigh isn't measured, but it's estimated to be less than half the households, said Allison Hapgood, special assistant at the Raleigh Housing Authority.
That's because few in Chavis Heights could afford computers when the W-Fi network was introduced. The average annual income of those who live in the area's 141 public housing units is about $12,000 a year, Hapgood said.
One Economy and local housing authorities have helped residents find donated computers or buy refurbished models at a discount, and computer ownership in Chavis Heights has grown from about 10 percent to about 40 percent, Hapgood said.
The Wi-Fi zone encompasses the public housing units as well as the 27 market-rate units within Chavis Heights.
That's a huge benefit to Williams, a single mother who moved into a three-bedroom townhouse in July with her four sons, now aged 7 to 11. She estimates the family spends more than 30 hours a week online on two computers, much of it attending online classes and doing homework.
Williams, who works as a legislative aide in the General Assembly, is working on her second master's degree from N.C. Central University, an online degree in education technology. Her first master's from NCCU was in public administration. She next plans to apply to Duke University Law School and aspires to a career in politics.
Among her professional interests: social programs that educate and empower the economically disadvantaged. She can personally vouch for the Chavis Heights Wi-Fi service and other support she has received over the years that have helped her come within reach of her goal to study the law.
Williams moved to the Triangle from New York in 2007 seeking a higher quality of life. After moving, she and her husband were divorced, and she moved in with her mother in Raleigh before renting in Chavis Heights for $905 a month.
"Free Internet is great," Williams said. "My budget is really really tight. Times are hard for everybody."
First time online
Some Chavis Heights residents had never used the Internet before their community became a Wi-Fi zone.
One of them is Eleanor Armstrong, a 62-year-old grandmother. She got her computer from her son this year and now goes online just about every day to send e-mail messages to friends, find sales and explore.
"I thought I was too old to learn," she said. "I cleaned houses for over 20 years, and I learned nothing about electronics - didn't need to.
"I'm just thrilled that I can go to the computer and just pull up something."
One Economy plans to add Wi-Fi hotspots in four more cities in North Carolina over the next 18 months but wouldn't say where.
The Wi-Fi network at Chavis Heights cost $103,962 to install, with contributions from the Raleigh Housing Authority. Heritage Park will cost an estimated $54,736 to install, with the City of Raleigh footing part of the bill.
Chavis Heights will get free Internet for four years, and Heritage Park for three years. After the trial period runs out, the Wi-Fi network will continue if at least 30 percent of the households agree to pay about $10 a month for the service.
Non-paying households will not be able to get onto the network after public access is cut off, said One Economy vice president Sonja Murray, who runs the nonprofit's six-employee office in Winston-Salem.
The Wi-Fi data speeds are about 1 megabit per second, slightly faster than AT&T's entry-level DSL service that costs $19.95 a month.
AT&T has given $38 million to One Economy through tax-deductible contributions from its corporate philanthropic arm, the AT&T Foundation. Marshall, who runs AT&T's North Carolina operations, said the company is making a gift of digital literacy, one of the few cases where AT&T is giving away its own product.
"It's not just a luxury anymore. It's a necessity," said Cynthia Marshall, AT&T's president for North Carolina. "This has a broader social purpose if we can get people connected to health, education and employment."
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