Policy & Technology

HUD's Castro Looks to Tech Sector to Connect 275,000 Poor Families to Broadband

More than half of all low-income families in this country are not currently connected to the Internet, according to Julián Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The ConnectHome initiative is building on the existing ConnectED project to change that statistic and ensure that the Internet "follows young people home."

It is widely understood among K-12 educators and administrators that students need high-speed broadband access to the Internet, both at school and at home, to take full advantage of the online learning resources that have become a fundamental part of the 21st century classroom. But it's also dawning on a growing number of employers that broadband access in the home might be as essential as school access to the development of a tech-savvy workforce.

Social programming giant GitHub threw a spotlight on the issue in December when the company invited local elected officials and members of the tech community to its San Francisco headquarters to meet with Julián Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), to learn about the ConnectHome initiative. Castro returned to Silicon Valley less than a month later to participate in a "fireside chat" at Google headquarters with Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, where they also discussed, among other topics, ConnectHome.

Announced in July by the Obama Administration, ConnectHome is a pilot program that aims to accelerate broadband adoption by families living in HUD-assisted housing through partnerships with private companies, non-profits, local communities, and the federal government. The initial goal of the program is to bring high-speed broadband access and tech tools to 275,000 low-income households across the country. The program is targeting 27 cities in the United States, including Newark, Seattle and Atlanta, as well as the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

"This is fundamentally about sparking greater opportunity in the lives of families of modest means and ensuring that 21st century America remains the undisputed land of opportunity for all people," Castro told reporters during his GitHub visit.

HUD has determined that more than half of all low-income families in this country are not currently connected to the Internet, Castro said. The ConnectHome initiative is building on the existing ConnectED project to change that statistic and ensure that the Internet "follows young people home," he said.

The initiative's primary goal is to connect families to the Internet that are not currently connected, Castro explained, but it's also designed to make those connections "meaningful" by providing the HUD residents with tools and education — what the ConnectHome site describes as "localized, free and culturally sensitive training in essential digital literacy skills that will allow them to effectively utilize high-speed Internet."

"At the end of this what we want is that connection and for folks to be able to make the most of it," Castro said. "That's what GitHub and others are helping us with."

GitHub was among the first companies to join the ConnectHome effort. The company announced in July that it would contribute $3 million worth of free private repositories for participants, $250,000 in financial support, and 2,000 hours in volunteer time "to train, coach and mentor those who want to build a career in software development," the company said in a statement. During Castro's visit to San Francisco, GitHub CEO Chris Wanstrath doubled his company's commitment to the project, pledging $500,000 and 4,000 volunteer hours to the initiative.

Partnering with ConnectHome was the first action of GitHub's new Social Impact Team, currently led by Nicole Sanchez. That group was organized to "leverage resources and people power to cultivate positive change in open source, tech, and communities across the U.S. and internationally," the company said in a statement.

GitHub's altruistic intentions notwithstanding, the company's participation in the ConnectHome effort is also an example of the private sector acting in its own enlightened self-interest to support K-12 education. GitHub is a Web-based hosting service that provides software developers (primarily) with a publishing tool, a version control system and a collaboration platform. The free private repositories the company is contributing are online storage directories used by its customers.

Wanstrath was very clear about his company's intentions.

"Honestly, we're looking at this as a way to hire people," he said. "Talent is so hard to find, and yet there is so much of it out there... If all the founders in Silicon Valley are really serious about building 100-year companies, they should be thinking five, 10, 15, 20 years out about where the talent is going to come from. And for us, we think this is going to be a huge pool."

"My concrete goal in the next few years is to hire someone that's connected to the Internet through ConnectHome," he added.

The GitHub event also included Chike Aguh, then chief programs officer for EveryoneOn, a non-profit that specializes in connecting low-income families with discounted broadband on city-by-city basis. (The group announced in January that Aguh would shortly become CEO.) EveryoneOn and US Ignite were ConnectHome's first non-profit partners. The group's role in the initiative is to "bridge the gap between technology and sociology," Aguh said.

"We work with all the national partners to make sure that we have Internet service offers that are available and affordable to families," he explained. "And we work on the ground with communities to convene chambers of commerce, community centers, city halls, and housing authorities to make sure that, once you have those offers, you get them to the families that need them. We're really a soup-to-nuts partner as far as digital inclusion goes."

Castro also argued that the ConnectHome initiative could improve diversity in the future high-tech workforce.

"There is a conversation raging right now about the demographics of the workforce here," he said. "How do we ensure we have a Silicon Valley workforce that looks like the world? How do we start including people from modest backgrounds and people of color? One way is to hire people who have lived in public housing, and many of them are people of color. If they have the chance to get savvy about the Internet and develop more technology skills to get them into this industry, that's a win for everybody. That's why what GitHub are doing makes a lot of sense."

"We believe that no matter who you are, what you look like, or what your parents make, you should have access to the Internet and the opportunities it brings," Aguh added.

ConnectHome is currently defining "high-speed broadband" as download speeds of between 5 and 10 megabits per second, Aguh said, depending on what's available in the area. Those speeds fall short of the recommendations of the State Educational Technology Directors Association ( SEDTA) for schools in its 2013 report, "The Broadband Imperative: Recommendations to Address K-12 Education Infrastructure Needs." To make the most of increasingly technology-rich online learning environments, schools should aim to support an external connection to the Internet service provider of at least 1 gigabit per second per 1,000 students/staff, and an internal wide-area-network connection from the district to each school and between schools of 10 to 100 Gbps per 1,000 students/staff.

"This is just a start," Castro said. "We plan to build on the partnerships we have been establishing to improve capacity in the future. Right now, it's about connecting entities that are not connected at all."

It's also true that many of the families the ConnectHome initiative is targeting don't actually have desktop or laptop computers, Castro pointed out.

"One of the needs we see clearly is for more devices," he said. "That's one of the things ConnectHome is looking for: more help with devices. We've identified that as a very particular need. A lot of people have a flip phone or smart phone, but that's not something you do your homework on. We need devices that can provide a fuller, more meaningful experience."

Castro repeated his call to provide computing devices to HUD residents during the Google fireside chat.

Google was also among the first tech enterprises to support ConnectHome. In July, before the company announced the formation of a parent company called Alphabet, Google unveiled plans to connect residents in public housing in Atlanta, Durham, Nashville and Kansas City for free via Google Fiber. During his conversation with Castro, Alphabet's Schmidt observed that the density of public housing makes it simple to roll out broadband to more people.

"It's sort of a no-brainer as a public act for corporations," he said, "and the benefits are very quick. The simple rule about fiber is, once you have it in place, it's just a godsend."

Google also promised to partner with ConnectHome and local community groups to develop basic computer skills training programs.

Castro's public discussion with Schmidt can be viewed below.

Other companies are providing free or low-cost connectivity for HUD residents through a ConnectHome partnership, including Sprint, Cox and CenturyLink. And like GitHub, Best Buy and Khan Academy are providing training.

Silicon Valley is familiar territory for Castro, who graduated from Stanford in 1996. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2000; was elected to the first of three terms as mayor of San Antonio, TX, in 2009; and joined President Obama's cabinet in 2014. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is reportedly considering Castro as a potential running mate if she wins her party's nomination.