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The upstate New York city is now offering free, high-speed and secure Internet service for hundreds of low-income residents. The city used $3.5 million in federal funding to develop the wireless network in many of the city’s least connected areas.

When his Internet service started approaching $100 per month, Ronnie Jones had to cut it out of his budget.

But the resident of Syracuse, N.Y., Housing Authority’s Toomey Abbott Towers soon realized how much he relied on being connected, from watching streaming television shows in the small apartment where he lives alone to being able to stay on top of news in the community and beyond.

“It drove me mad,” the retired U.S. Army veteran said of the isolation.

Fortunately, the timing worked out well for Jones. Shortly after cutting off his service, he attended a meeting at the towers where he was offered a chance to test out a new free internet service offered by the city of Syracuse. A technician soon visited to set up his new router, and Jones was back online last week. He has television programs back and is eager to learn how to use the internet to manage his veteran health and retirement benefits.

Starting today, that free high-speed and secure internet service will be available to hundreds of additional residents as Syracuse officially launches Surge Link, the brand for its new free broadband service. Mayor Ben Walsh is hosting a launch event this morning at SHA’s James Geddes Housing Development, where a connection ceremony will take place and income-eligible residents can sign up for the free service.

With $3.5 million in federal funding authorized last spring by the Syracuse Common Council, the city has worked with Geneva-based Community Broadband Networks to install a fixed wireless network in 10 city Census tracts on the south, southwest and near west sides. That’s an area that represents many of the city’s poorest and least digitally connected neighborhoods.

“Internet access is as important a piece of infrastructure as anything else that we provide our constituents,” Walsh said in an interview last week.

Broadband is vital for connecting residents to health care, education, job training, household finance tools and much more, said Vincent Scipione, who started earlier this year’s as the city’s first Smart City Manager and has helped lead the rollout of Surge Link.

“The internet is a social determinate of health,” he said. “Everything we do on a daily basis involves the internet somehow.”

The city’s goal is serve at least 2,500 households in the pilot area under a three-year test program. City officials plan to work with US Ignite, a national nonprofit with expertise and experience in community-based telecommunications, to assess the pilot’s performance and figure out how to eventually roll the free internet out to residents citywide.

Residents in the pilot area can sign up for the service at syracusesurgelink.com, by emailing Diese E-Mail-Adresse ist vor Spambots geschützt! Zur Anzeige muss JavaScript eingeschaltet sein! or by calling (315) 325-5000. City officials also plan an expansive community outreach effort in order to reach people who, because of their lack of connectivity, may not know about the opportunity.

“We’re going to be present at all of the areas that we would anticipate interfacing with the people that need this service the most,” Scipione said. “It could be at a grocery story, it could be at a park, at a block party, all of those things to be able to get this information out to them and also help people right there on the spot sign up for this service.”

Residents are eligible for the service if they already receive public assistance through programs such as SNAP, Medicaid, WIC or SSI. Families with children approved to receive benefits under the free and reduced-price school meal programs and individuals who have received a federal Pell Grant in the current year can also qualify, along with anyone whose income is at or below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.

After people apply for the Surge Link service, Community Broadband Networks will verify their eligibility and contact residents within three to five days to set up an installation visit. The company has worked with the city to establish a network of fixed wifi infrastructure on buildings and utility poles in the coverage area, and a small router installed in the residence pulls in the signal. Subscribers get a unique username and password to access the secure service.

In addition to the free 100-megabit connection, residents can also purchase a heavily discounted tablet or laptop computer. A Fire 7 table costs just $11 and a Chromebook would be $50, prices that could save buyers up to $100. The city also has a digital empowerment program, launched at the start of this year, that so far has provided free technology training to more than 400 residents who have learned how to use the internet for activities such as managing prescriptions or paying bills.

“We’re taking a very holistic approach to this,” Scipione said. “It’s not just us providing internet and saying, ‘Have at it.’”

The Walsh administration has rolled out other initiatives to address the digital divide since identifying it in his first year office as a key barrier to reducing poverty. Those efforts have included free wifi access at community centers and acquiring thousands of light poles that were made available to wireless network companies to improve their service.

For the mayor, though, the launch of Surge Link is the biggest milestone so far.

“This program is the most tangible and most impactful way in which we’ve done that to date,” Walsh said in an interview last week. “What we have in this program is a pilot that we think and we hope we’re going to be able to scale.”

Walsh said addressing the digital divide was one of five key barriers to overcoming poverty that a study conducted in his first year in office identified. The other barriers were workforce development, educational attainment, transportation and housing stability.

“Arguably, we can’t even begin to break down the other four unless internet access is achieved,” he said.

Antanesia Smith has experienced that reality. The south side resident is a single mother of three daughters, ages 2, 5 and 9. She has managed to scrape together enough money to pay for broadband, which has enabled her to take college courses and work. It’s also been important for her growing children, especially her oldest who is now in fourth grade.

“All of her learning tools are online,” Smith said. “Let’s be honest, we cannot live without the internet,”

But cutting that cost out of her budget will make a big difference for her family’s finances, and those of many other neighbors. Smith serves as director of finance for the nonprofit Brady Faith Center and works with families who are struggling with the digital divide.

“I’ve heard how excited people are for this change to be made,” she said. “Most of us are living paycheck to paycheck, and this makes a big difference.”


Autor(en)/Author(s): Jeremy Boyer

Quelle/Source: Governing, 03.10.2023

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