RICHMOND -- City officials Tuesday declared bridging the "digital divide" a priority and directed staff to get moving on a plan to bring the Internet into the homes of more of Richmond's low-income residents.
"The divide is not going away as quickly as we'd like," Councilman Jim Rogers said. "It affects people economically, socially, politically and in other ways."
A unanimous council voted to authorize city staff to develop a plan to reach out to low-income residents and partner with Internet providers and nonprofits to increase computers and Internet access to low-income families.
Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said several local groups, including Richmond Building Blocks for Kids and Reliatech, a computer repair company, have programs aimed at increasing Internet and computer access locally. McLaughlin noted that a nonprofit group called Internet Archive has put up a high-speed public antenna on its property on Florida Avenue, which provides free access to about 1,000 families.
"There is a need to reduce the digital gap, and groups are working at it," McLaughlin said. "It would be good at this time for staff to develop a plan and help with outreach."
Increasing online access has been on the city's radar for years. In 2009, Richmond tried to get funding to install a public underground Internet infrastructure by applying for about $2 million in federal stimulus money. The idea was to install broadband cables that would have linked public housing and other city-owned buildings to a network, but the Department of Commerce denied the application.
In the meantime, smaller groups have stepped into the breach, most notably with the antenna on Florida Avenue. A Comcast representative told the council Tuesday that the cable provider gives Internet service to families with children on free or reduced school lunch programs for just $9.95 per month and laptop computers for $149.95.
The staff report did not provide data of how many of Richmond's 103,000 residents lack home Internet access, but all the council members agreed there was a problem in working-class neighborhoods and public housing projects.
Staff is expected to unveil a plan later this year.
Rogers, in a nod to the barbed political debates about local issues that occur on the Web, ribbed Councilman Corky Boozé, saying that more people online may not necessarily be good for his reputation.
"There will be even more people who can read about you on (Councilman Tom Butt's) e-forum," Rogers said. Butt has been known to criticize Boozé on his electronic newsletter, which already reaches thousands.