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Work on the Internet bringing a lot of income. Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 218

Pat Millen joins the show to describe how the North Carolina community organization Eliminate the Digital Divide E2D provides low-income families with laptops and Internet access. Listen to this episode here. Pat Millen: I know for a fact that there are a lot of kids at this school that can't afford a computer, much less the Internet. What are we going to do about it?

I'm Lisa Gonzalez. The idea for Eliminate the Digital Divide, also known as E2D, began inand today the non-profit has grown by leaps and bounds.

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The North Carolina organization finds a way to bring computers and low-cost Internet access to school kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. Since Internet access is critical today for online homework assignments and research, Pat Millen and his family felt the need to help others. The next thing they knew, Pat was president and one of the co-founders of E2D, and the organization was working with volunteers, prce acton trading system in binary options supporters, and municipal leaders to get low-income students connected at home.

E2D works with one of the municipal networks we cover, MI-Connection, to bring ongoing Internet access to families that use the program. Listen for how a publicly owned network approach of such a program that is meant to lift up members of the community.

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For more on the organization, check out the E2D website at ed. Welcome to the show. Pat Millen: Thanks for having me, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: The last time we talked, we were on a webinar with Next Century Cities, and I made a little joke about E2D and wondering if that was named after a Star Wars quick and easy money making. It was such a good joke I decided to bring it back, inexplicably perhaps.

Tell me, how did Eliminate the Digital Divide come to be? Pat Millen: Yeah, so it's actually kind of a neat story. This was four years ago, basically.

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My daughter who was 12 years old at the time came home from her local public middle school and said, "Dad, I don't get it. Every single assignment we get in school assumes that you have a computer at home to do the work. I know for a fact that there are a lot of kids at this school that can't work on the Internet bringing a lot of income a computer, much less the Internet.

That just doesn't seem really fair to me. We live in a community in Davidson, North Carolina and a broader community in Charlotte, North Carolina where the disparity between the very rich and the very poor is pretty wide, but there's no reason in the world that there aren't ways for us to work together to help provide basic technology for these families that would really struggle to achieve obtaining that themselves.

What did you do first? Pat Millen: Well we tried to think big but to start with we thought we'd start small. We went to the local elementary school and just went to the principal and the counselors and said -- By the way, we had already talked to the mayor of the town and said, "This seems ridiculous that there really are these pockets of digital exclusion.

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What do you think we can do about it? Give me two days because we know that the teachers know very specifically who doesn't have the Internet. There are lots of clues.

That would be one. Long story short, the principal came back after a couple days and said, "We have exactly 54 families at this school that we are very certain don't have the Internet at home.

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We want to solve this societal issue in our town. That's not a sustainable solution. Christopher Mitchell: I want to get back to talking more about that solution, but let's just go down one quick side road and that's why is it important to have access in the home, whereas, I'm guessing, your community has public libraries and perhaps other places where a family might be able to go to get Internet access from time to time?

Pat Millen: Right. I think we need to think in the most practical sense. We like to think about the families after we're able to help them get a computer and the Internet at home.

Prior to them getting one of our computers and one of our solutions, we think about that kid researching papers using just his tiny cell phone screen, right? That's incredibly difficult. You can't type a paper on a telephone. Christopher Mitchell: I've made that point many times, yes. Pat Millen: Yeah.

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Then think about the kid staying after school in the media center of the school until the very last second that the janitor needs to lock the door so that he can do his work. Then think about the same kid walking through all kinds of weather to get to the public library and hop on one of their computers. Christopher Mitchell: Right, and if I can just jump in for second, one of our best libraries in St. Paul is in an area that's next to a half-abandoned strip mall.

Pat Millen: That's exactly right. Think about that same kid walking home in the dark through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the area. Think about the kid while he's on the computer at the library getting tapped out because he's used his time allocation and there are 25 other people in line waiting to get on a computer, and so there's a limited amount of time. Then think about this very same kid going through the motions of walking through the rain and the dark or the heat and the sun to get to the library that's two miles from his house.

Then think of him taking measure of his life's prospects.

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I'm not going to be able to pass this class. My family is so poor, shouldn't I just go ahead and drop out and go try to find a job? Every kid that gets a computer and connectivity has that greater chance to be successful and to have a positive outcome with his academic experience in school and every one of those kids that graduates that might otherwise not graduate, that kid has a chance to really change his life in a different way, a positive way.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Let's get back to the, I would say the two familiar challenges with eliminating the Digital Divide and you addressed both of them. The first is a physical computer. How do you deal with that?

What's your solution? Pat Millen: Our original solution was we were just going to buy really, really inexpensive computers off of eBay or go to Best Buy and buy Chromebooks when option strike price were on mega-sale.

Then about 3 months into our existence I had spoken to our local -- The largest company that's local to where we live is Lowe's -- Their corporate headquarters is a couple miles down the road. I went to a friend of mine at Lowe's who is relatively up on the organizational chart and I said, "You guys got computers that decommission from time to time.

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You think there's any chance we could get our hands on those? Let me get back to you and see what we can do. Pat Millen: It's an unbelievable amount of laptops and really, a total game changer for us because we were able to receive these laptops. We then went to Microsoft and said, "Hey, do you have any way for us to purchase inexpensive operating systems or productivity software?

You guys qualify brilliantly since you are re-purposing computers that have already had our licenses where you can put new licenses on them but we're not going to charge very much money for them.

This gentleman, Al Sudduth, took it upon himself to reimage all of the computers from Lowe's with this new software. The next think you know, we've got solutions that we're now ready to bring forth. From that moment, we got into the business of talking to companies and begging them for the decommissioning inventory and the story's just been great from there. We have been able to come up with solutions now for over 1, families in the area.

We're now working primarily in Charlotte Center with five of the lowest income high schools in Charlotte.

What's exciting about that is the 1, families that we've served, what's even more exciting is we're going to serve 1, families between now and Thanksgiving.

We're essentially doubling in size in the next 3 months over our entire three and a half year existence. Christopher Mitchell: That's great.

Now I feel like there's this moment where someone like me, if I was in the audience, might be thinking, "This is really wonderful what you've done. If I'm thinking holistically, I don't want the United States to be dependent on a family in Davidson thinking, "How can we solve this problem? It is the sort of thing where I think it shows that when you are in a community and you take action, you can make things happen.

When you start asking around, people are of good faith, and you can find these sorts of solutions and put them together. At least that's something I think I take away from it.

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Is that accurate? Pat Millen: The first thing I would say is that what started as a family discussion very quickly became hundreds and hundreds of volunteers.

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This is no longer just a mom and pop shop. We have lots of people that give just dozens and hundreds of hours to us to help make this happen now. Ultimately though, I do think these are solutions that exist in lots of places. I feel like every city has, hiding in plain sight, thousands and thousands of computers in office buildings and yes, everybody has some plan, plus or minus, as to what they're going to do with their computers. Some of them send them to recyclers, some of them sell them to their employees, but in just asking for laptops we've been able to come up with quite a few sources that believe in what we do.

Chris, that's one point that I'd really like to make. It is absolutely the easiest ask you could ever make to say, "You don't want it anymore? We can make it work for somebody else in ways that it never worked for these people before.

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The next challenge is the recurring expense of Internet access. To some extent, I think this is where I get really interested because -- I'll try and give a very brief synopsis so you don't spend too much time on it -- You're in a community, one of two, Davidson and Mooresville where the city operates the cable network because years ago you had this company Adelphia that went bankrupt and the city had the right to buy the network from them and it did.

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Although, I think it's work on the Internet bringing a lot of income to note that in buying it, it estimated it would need a certain amount of money and when it bought the network it found that that network needed far more work and actually had fewer subscribers than it had been told and so therefore went immediately into a loss mode. It was losing money and it was very frustrating for people that they were then having to subsidize the network in ways that were not expected.

I think a flipside of that is that the network has to be more responsive to the community than if Time Warner Cable was up. Work on the Internet bringing a lot of income curious if you can — Well, first of all, if you would amend anything that I've said -- but how you went about working with the cable network to make sure people would have recurring access without it breaking the back. Everything you said is exactly true. The company is called MI-Connection. It is frequently called lots of other things by the municipal owners, all the citizens, because it has become a bit of tricky debt load for these municipalities.

I think it's slowly over time going to justify it's purchase.