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Public, Private Efforts Under Way to Bridge Arlington's Digital Divide

Arlington Public Schools gave away about 1,700 laptops last year to students in need of one.

Several efforts are under way to help bridge the digital divide in Arlington.

Some, like the Comcast Internet Essentials program, are tied to a larger, industrywide effort to increase the number of low-income households — particularly those with school-age children — with broadband Internet access.

Others, like Arlington Public Schools' Laptop Loaner program, are the result of homegrown efforts.

In November 2011, Comcast and other major telecommunications companies announced they would begin offering low-cost high-speed access through a partnership with the Federal Communications Commission, according to multiple news reports.

The $4 billion program is operated by the nonprofit Connect 2 Compete and overseen by the FCC, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Participating companies in part see the effort as an investment — that by demonstrating the value of high-speed Internet for studying, job hunting and finding health care information, among other things, they'll retain the new customers they gain even after the discounted rate expires, according to the National Journal.

Internet Essentials

As part of its deal to acquire NBC Universal, Comcast was obligated to offer low-cost broadband service before the November announcement, according to the National Journal.

The company's Internet Essentials program makes available high-speed Internet at $9.95 per month to qualifying families with at least one student receiving free or reduced lunch. In Arlington County, .

Comcast also offers qualifying families low-cost computers for $150 and offers print, online and in-person technical assistance and digital literacy programs.

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"This has always been a critical issue for our company. There is an industrywide attempt to expand broadband access," said regional Comcast spokeswoman Alisha Martin.

"This is something that is very important to Comcast and always has been very important."

Laptop Loaner

The Internet Essentials program, now in its second year, is strictly a Comcast venture. The school system cannot favor one service provider over another, and so it leaves the decision to enroll up to individual parents, said Matt Smith, special projects coordinator in Arlington Public Schools Information Services Department.

Still, regarding the national Connect 2 Compete initiative, "This is a piece of that. Comcast is a bit ahead of the curve a little bit," Smith said.

Last year, Arlington Public Schools gave away about 1,700 refurbished computers to low-income families through its Laptop Loaner program. That program is also in its second year.

Each summer, as the school system updates its computer stock, "gently used" laptops are identified, refurbished and made available to families in need of a computer — or an additional computer — at home, Smith said.

Free, open-source software is installed on each of the refurbished computers.

"It's been very well-received," Smith said. "We're very excited about that program."

Schools reach out to families through their teachers, through the PTA and on back-to-school nights. The central office does not define what a "family in need" is, Smith said. That determination is left to the individual school's discretion.

Last year, the school system did not have enough refurbished laptops to accommodate all of its requests. This year, that shouldn't be a problem, Smith said.

One of Arlington Public Schools' stated goals is to make sure every child has access to an Internet-connected personal computing device, Smith said.

Along those lines, the county and school system have placed an emphasis on making sure free Internet connectivity is available at libraries and recreation centers, he said.

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