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Carolina Garcia

Free Wi-Fi Internet connection to reach Iron Triangle residents

on February 2, 2011

Residents living in Richmond’s Iron Triangle Neighborhood will have access to free Internet from four to five Wi-Fi locations within the next year.

The effort is part of a two-year $500,000 grant through the California Emerging Technology Fund, via Building Blocks for Kids (BBK), a cooperative of more than 30 organisations dedicated to the advancement of families in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood.

Building Blocks’ mission is educate parents in the Iron Triangle about basic digital literacy and provide them with free refurbished computers for their families. To date, 400 adults have received computer training, 360 computers have been distributed and one free Wi-Fi hot spot has been established.

Officials from Building Blocks said the project, dubbed the Emerging Technology Plan For Family Inclusion (ETPFI), is important for families, particularly those in the Iron Triangle who struggle with other socio-economic issues like poverty and job loss. The Richmond unemployment rate hovers at 18 percent, according to the latest data available.

“We know that we are coming into a community on the lower socio-economic part of the ladder and we know that people are struggling here,” said Luis Perez, ETPFI project manager for Building Blocks. Residents are prioritizing paying for other things they need like groceries, rent and transportation fares, so it’s not surprising that computers and Internet are not available in homes, Perez said.

Perez said that not only is there a deficit in the Iron Triangle in the number of families that own computers, but there is also a deficit in education about how to effectively use those computers and the Internet. “We know that having a computer and having broadband is a luxury outside of some people’s reach,” Perez said, “but a computer is now what a phone used to be and the expectation that you have access to technology is there.”

“Without the Internet, the computer is just like a fancy typewriter,” he added.

Iron Triangle residents who cannot pay for Internet service do have some other options for accessing it, but they are not always convenient or available. The Richmond Public Library located at 325 Civic Center Plaza, about 1.5 miles from the center of the Iron Triangle neighborhood, has about 25 computers open for free access to the public. However, the library is “not quite as central to residents living in the Iron Triangle, and for people who don’t have cars it becomes less convenient,” said Sherry Drobner, program manager of LEAP, an adult literacy program sponsored by the Richmond Public Library.

Drobner mentioned that residents also have access to the Nevin Community Center located in the Iron Triangle, which has several computer terminals available. However, the community center closes at 5 p.m. and the official hours for the Richmond Public Library only extend to 7 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, starting from noon. The hours extend to 5 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and the building is closed on Sunday.

Perez said not having computers in the home does not mean children won’t have Internet access, acknowledging both the library and school as daytime sources. “But we think it is important for parents to learn to guide and watch over their children. Its also about providing access to information that parents in the Iron Triangle can use to improve their lives. For example a parent who only speaks Spanish can have the digital literacy to go to Google Translate.”

The Building Blocks free eight-hour computer training is split up into several days and covers basic computer setup, Internet use, an introduction to Microsoft Word and basic typing. It usually takes about a week to complete and the family’s refurbished computer is delivered about two weeks later. 

To qualify for a free, refurbished computer familes only have to meet Building Blocks’ criteria: the family had to have no working computer at home, a child enrolled at a public school and a parent willing to complete eight hours of computer training.“We trained families on how to use the technology; the way for families to get the most out of it is by providing them with a means to use it,” Perez said.

The project’s initial plan was to connect families to the Internet using DSL service through One Economy’s Access All program with AT&T. One Economy is a global non-profit organization that specializes in connecting underserved communities to the Internet. However, because the program stipulated that residents must have home telephone service with AT&T or could not be in default with AT&T, fewer people qualified, Perez said.

“Unfortunately a large chunk of our families did not meet that criteria,” Perez said, referring to the Access All program with AT&T. “So we had to come up with something else to connect families and that’s where the Wi-Fi comes in.”

In partnership with technology company Relia-Tech, which has offices in Contra Costa County, one free access Wi-Fi spot hotspot has already been set up at the Building Blocks headquarters in Richmond at 401 1st Street. Two wireless antennae were attached to the roof of the building, and Perez said that to ensure easy access to the Internet spots, antennae have also been installed on each computer the group has distributed to local residents.

Families within a few blocks of Building Blocks headquarters can now use the new hotspot to connect to the Internet. It is not password protected.

Perez said they are testing the current system while searching for other areas where they can extend wireless antennae.

Building Blocks is still shy of its goal of reaching 1,000 families with training, free computers and Wi-Fi, but Perez said he is optimistic about the process and about the group’s role in bridging the digital divide in the community. “Ultimately turning the Iron Triangle into a digital one is exciting,” he said. “It’s going to give parents and kids the opportunities to learn outside of a school or library. That makes the investment that much more powerful.”

To support the work of Building Blocks used computer monitors and used computers can be donated at their headquarters. Contact Luis Perez for more information at 510-232-5812.

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