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Plan makes city’s poor eligible for low cost Internet service

Updated: April 16, 2013 2:49PM

The digital divide that has left nearly 31 percent of all Chicagoans with little or no access to the Internet could narrow for as many as 1.1 million of the city’s poorest residents — thanks to a plan unveiled Tuesday that Mayor Rahm Emanuel called a “game changer.”

Connect 2 Compete — a national non-profit that aims to increase “digital literacy” and bridge the gap between the Internet haves and have-nots — has chosen Chicago as the pilot city for its EveryoneOn campaign.

That designation will make 1.1 million Chicagoans eligible for a new low-cost Internet option that builds on a partnership with Comcast forged nearly two years ago.

In June, 2011, Emanuel joined Comcast in announcing “Internet Essentials,” a first-in-the-nation program designed to provide high-speed Internet services for the families of 330,000 Chicago Public School students who qualify for free- or reduced price school lunches.

Comcast normally charges $48.95-a-month for broadband Internet service. Under the new program, eligible families have been able to get that service for $9.95-a-month with no installation or service fees.

So far, 11,000 disadvantaged Chicago families have taken advantage of the low-cost, high-speed Internet service. That makes Chicago the top city in the country for participation.

The EveryoneOn campaign is expected to build on what Comcast started in a public-private partnership that includes: FreedomPop, the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Housing Authority the Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges of Chicago and the SmartChicago Collaborative.

FreedomPop will add a second, low-cost option that uses a high-speed, 4G wireless network to reach 1.1 million Chicagoans living in zip codes where the median income is $35,000 or less. Participating Chicagoans will also get free Internet training.

Emanuel pointed to preliminary data from the city’s computer centers that show Chicagoans who get technology training from those centers are 13 percent more likely to get jobs or pay raises.

Employees who use the Internet or a computer also earn 14-to-17 percent more than those who don’t, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Digital skills are 21st century workforce skills, making digital literacy training and affordable access to high-speed Internet service game changers for children and adults,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a news release.

“From Day One, we have worked to increase Internet connectivity and knowledge for our residents — especially in neighborhoods that have traditionally been under-served. This is a great example of the public and private sectors working together to craft innovative solutions to prepare our workforce for the global economy.”

Zach Leverenz, CEO of Connect2 Compete, said the digital divide is “solvable,” but the solution requires “collective will and bold action” that Chicago has already demonstrated by expanding internet access and increasing digital literacy.

“We are excited to be launching this pilot in Chicago and look forward to continuing it in cities across the country,” he said.

Last fall, Emanuel dangled the use of light poles, streets, alleys, freight tunnels and unused city-owned fiber to jump-start his predecessor’s failed plan to establish high-speed Internet access to underserved Chicago neighborhoods, industrial corridors and public spaces.

Emanuel said then he hoped to succeed where former Mayor Richard M. Daley failed by leveraging his plan to rebuild Chicago’s crumbling water and sewer system and by dividing the city into 15 commercial corridors with a separate competition in each zone.

Free Wi-Fi is already available in Millennium Park, thanks to an agreement quietly reached with Chicago-based SilverIP Communications.

The new solicitation invited companies, universities and organizations to suggest ways to leverage the city’s “existing infrastructure and assets” to bring “free or heavily discounted, multi-megabit Internet service over a wired or wireless network” to businesses, underserved neighborhoods and, ultimately, to every park and public plaza in Chicago in each of the 15 zones.

The 15 designated areas include the Loop; West Loop; River North; Bucktown/Wicker Park; McCormick Place/Cermak; the Ravenswood Industrial Corridor; Loyola University; DePaul; the Illinois Medical District; the Illinois Institute of Technology; the University of Illinois at Chicago; Roosevelt University and Columbia College; the University of Chicago, and the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Also included is the former Michael Reese Hospital, which Daley purchased for an Olympic Village, then wanted to turn into a technology park.

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