Long before anyone in Raleigh connects to Google Fiber’s high-speed Internet service, the tech giant will be campaigning for hearts and minds.
Google on Thursday introduced a “digital inclusion” program meant to spread the benefits of Internet access and technology literacy.
The company will pay for two people to work toward those goals for a year at two local nonprofits. The fellows will team with the Triangle Literacy Council and the Kramden Institute to provide training and access to computers, possibly through a mobile computing lab.
“We care deeply about getting people online, and we have since we started,” said Andrew Bentley, manager for Google’s national digital inclusion program.
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Google will have some competition from AT&T, which is already rolling out its own gigabit service. AT&T wired two community centers with free, speedy connections earlier this year and has accepted a Raleigh start-up into its business accelerator.
Google’s fellows will each receive a stipend of $33,000 per year and benefits. In all, there will be 16 fellowships spread nationally across the eight areas where the company is deploying Fiber.
They’ll be trying to address an issue that has seen more and more attention in recent years, including a prominent spot in the State of the Union address this year.
Lack of computer access and literacy can be an “opportunity cost” for a person, cutting off chances to better manage finance, health and employment, according to Jon Gant, director for the Center for Digital Inclusion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“It’s more than saying, ‘Here is a computer, or here is some type of device…’ he said. “It’s also about helping people just feel comfortable, and having faith that these tools are going to help.”
And companies like Google, he said, might see inclusion as a way to make areas more fertile for their high-speed networks.
“It’s really a model of co-invention,” he said. “They’re working… to help people learn how to use it.”
Applications for Google’s fellowship program opened on Thursday. The company is looking for people with “strong roots in their community” with five to seven years of experience in nonprofits and community organizations.
Private or public?
Malkia Cyril, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Media Justice, thinks that Google and AT&T are mostly trying to burnish their images ahead of potential new “net neutrality” regulation.
“Because the rules are in contest … we’re in a place that it’s important for them that they demonstrate that they’re good partners,” said Cyril, whose work focuses on greater access to communications technologies.
Cyril thinks that government, ultimately, is the force that can best ensure universal access to the Internet. Currently, about 25 percent of North Carolina residents lack high-speed Internet access, according to the American Community Survey.
“Are we going to leave connectivity and digital inclusion to private companies?” Cyril asked, pointing to the federal Lifeline program as a potential way to get people with lower incomes online at subsidized rates.
And for all their publicity, Gant said, Internet providers’ investments in digital inclusion remain relatively small.
While universal access might not happen soon, Raleigh’s city government has launched its own inclusion efforts. The city is conducting a survey in preparation for a new effort to get people connected.
Meanwhile, Laura Walter, president and chief executive for the Triangle Literacy Council, hopes that the nonprofit’s partnership with Google can yield some immediate results.
“One of the biggest issues that we have here is working with people that come in looking to find a job or get an education,” she said.
And for many of them, she said, the Internet is a barrier rather than a gateway.