Proposal for Pilot Project to Bridge the Digital Divide
In Low-Income Cambridge Households
In November of 2006, in response to a Council Order requesting that the City help
bridge the digital divide, the City Manager appointed a committee charged with
finding ways to address barriers to internet access. This committee was to include
members of the City Council, School Committee, and other agency representatives.
The City Manager appointed the committee, and designated Assistant City Manager
Ellen Semonoff as its chair. The first meeting of the committee was held in March,
The Digital Divide Committee surveyed many projects that provide computers, training,
technical support and Internet access to students and households. After review of the
several different models and the pros and cons of those models, the group reached
consensus on several critical issues: First, the decision was made to provide desktops and
not laptops. Second the decision was made to use refurbished computers rather than
purchase new computers. Third, the decision was made to incorporate work force
development opportunities into the program by having the computers refurbished by RSTA
students who would also provide the majority of the call center tech support. Finally, the
decision was made to do the pilot at Newtowne Court in conjunction with the City‟s
existing wifi pilot and to target residents of any age and family structure who do not
currently have access to the Internet. Through smaller working groups, the following
proposal was developed with the purpose of examining how various departments of the
City of Cambridge and local non-profit organizations could work together to help bridge
the digital divide in low- income households.
The development of the pilot depends on significant City resources in conjunction with
resources from community agencies. Partners in the pilot design are committed to
providing in-kind resources to support its development. But the roll out of a broader digital
divide program is not expected to be funded by the City. The proposal is for the City to use
its resources to launch the pilot, to evaluate the pilot design and to work with the existing
community partners and others to seek outside funding for additional pilot or replication
sites. We anticipate that a well designed and evaluated pilot will be critical to attracting
grants from foundations and corporations.
The goals of the proposed pilot project are:
To develop a model to provide low-income residents with tools to access
To provide the tools, training, and technical support for 50 Newtowne
Court households to successfully utilize the free wi-fi Internet access
that the City has made available
To serve as a workforce development tool for RSTA students
The components of the pilot are:
I. Reliable wireless Internet access throughout Newtowne Court
II. Hardware/software for 50 households and the Windsor Street
III. Intake and technology/skills assessment
V. Technical support
I. Reliable wireless Internet access throughout Newtowne Court
The City‟s IT Department will upgrade the network hardware in Newtowne Court
and ensure that units throughout the development can receive a consistent, strong
signal. ITD will establish procedures for responding to outages and loss of service,
which include its own monitoring mechanisms as well as the ability to respond to
II. Hardware/software for 50 households and the Windsor Street Computer Lab
Refurbished computers will be made available at no charge through the Pilot.
Pentium III computers that the City of Cambridge has recently taken out of service
will be refurbished for the Pilot. Cambridge Community Television will provide 5
Macintosh computers of comparable specifications in order to determine which
platform is most cost effective in the short and long term. Should decommissioned
Macintosh computers be available from the Cambridge Public Schools, they may
also be sought for the Pilot.
RSTA students will refurbish the computers to meet the following minimum
Processor 1GHz Pentium 3/4 933 MHz G4
Monitor 15” flat screen 15” flat screen
Memory 256 MB 512 MB
Hard drive 40 GB 40 GB
Optical drive CD-RW/DVD CD-RW/DVD
Networking Wireless Network Card, Wireless Network Card,
IEEE 802.11g capable IEEE 802.11g capable
Video Ram 64 MB 128 MB
Operating System Windows XP Mac OSX
Software MS Office MS Office or Open
Firefox browser, TBD Office, Firefox browser,
suite of educational/ TBD suite of educational/
software and files software and files
For ease of training and tech support, a standard image will be created for the
15 new PCs will be purchased for the Windsor Street computer lab.
III. Intake and technology/skills assessment
Pilot participants must meet the following criteria:
1. Live in Newtowne Court
2. Do not currently have broadband access to the Internet either because
there is no computer in the household or because the existing computer
is not capable of accessing the wireless signal
3. Be willing to help the City evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot by
answering questions about household use of a computer and the
Internet prior to, during and at the end of the pilot
4. Be willing either to demonstrate computer proficiency or to complete
5. Have at least one adult member of the household who agrees to
participate in the pilot
Applications for inclusion in the pilot, in English, Spanish and Fre nch, will be
mailed and collected by Tenant Services of the Cambridge Housing Authority.
Applicants will indicate household size, prior computer experience, and whether
or not there is currently a computer in the household and its condition.
Applications will be separated into categories (household size, number of children
in the home, etc.) and households will be chosen by lottery from each category,
ensuring a heterogeneous study sample.
Once households are identified, participants will meet with intake staff to
establish specific needs, existing level of skill and usage, and assurances that
participants are willing to engage in assessment and evaluation. A clear
explanation of what the pilot will and will not deliver and limitations of liability
will be explained. Applicants will respond to an assessment questionnaire to
collect data on their previous experience and skill with computers and the Internet
and to ascertain the level of training they will require. We will request that every
potential computer user in the household over the age of 12 reply to the
There will be three two- hour sessions of training available to Pilot households,
offered at various times for participants‟ convenience, and with assistance in the
language in which they are fluent. There will be 6-10 students per class, and
anyone from the household may attend; at least one adult is required to
successfully complete the series. The first two sessions are designed for those
with limited computer/Internet experience, and can be bypassed by those with
demonstrable skills. The last session, on Internet safety and computer
maintenance, will be required of everyone. At the conclusion of the third session,
participants will take ownership of their computers. PC training will take place at
the Windsor, Community Learning Center and Central Square Library labs;
Macintosh training will take place at CCTV. CLC, CCTV and the Library will
recruit and train trainers.
Training videos will be produced and will be available on DVD and Youtube.
Participants will also be provided with a list of community training resources,
printing resources, vouchers for classes, troubleshooting guides, and information
about tech support for the project.
Session 1 - Basics Session 2 – The Internet Session 3 - Maintenance & Safety
Vocabulary for the computer Vocabulary for the internet Setting up a computer
Computer on/off/standby Opening a browser Virus protection
Keyboard and mouse skills Establishing an email account Backing up data
Intro to operating systems Receiving/Sending/Forwarding Diagnostics – network problems
Intro to software emails vs. hardware problems
Intro to peripherals Downloading/Sending files General troubleshooting
Storage and file management Using search engines Accessing support for the Pilot
Internet resources Other support options
After the training, there will be an assessment of what has been learned and a
computer will be provided to those who have demonstrated at least a minimum
level of competency. There will be a follow up assessment one month later to
ascertain computer use, technical issues and further training needs.
V. Technical support
Tech support for the Pilot, and for other Newtowne Court households with
computers meeting comparable technical specifications, will be available for six
months from the time that participants receive their computers.
Tech support for hardware will include a call center, staffed by RSTA and
Workforce students during the school year, and MSYEP participants in the
summer. The call center will include a voice mailbox, and will be staffed 3 days
per week for 3 hours each day. Additional support, located at either Newtowne
Court or the Windsor Street computer lab, will be provided through a walk- in
clinic available on Saturdays for 3 hours. The clinic will be staffed by an adult,
preferably the person who did the Intake Assessment, and a resident of Newtowne
Court, who will also train and provide backup support to youth who live in the
community. The hope is to nurture “community technology leaders,” who will be
available at Newtowne Court to answer questions as the need for intensive
support diminishes over time. Additional support will be provided to participants
requiring home visits.
Those providing tech support will be trained to discriminate between hardware
and network issues. The IT department will set up systems to remotely monitor
the wi- fi network in Newtowne Court, and to respond to trouble reports from
users and tech support.
Evaluation will include assessment of participants‟ satisfaction, use of the
Internet, use of the computer for other than Internet, who in the household is using
the computer/internet, etc. Effectiveness of tech support will be evaluated, as well
as comparison of tech issues.
What We Should Learn from Pilot:
1. Costs of implementation for a larger population, including equipment,
tech support and training
2. Changes in participants‟ access to and use of Internet
3. Participant satisfaction
4. Process issues: what would we do differently next time?
5. What are the tech support needs at the end of the project?
6. In households with school-aged children, has there been increased
interaction by parents with the school department? Have students
shown increased involvement with or success in their school work?
Background on Wi-Fi in Cambridge
From Cambridge Life Fall 2006 – Winter 2007
“In 2005, the Cambridge City Council asked the IT department to explore
a municipally implemented wireless network that would serve the entire
city. In the spring of 2006, the IT Department began working
collaboratively with MIT to rollout an MIT-developed „mesh‟ or
„Roofnet‟ wi- fi system. This innovative technology leverages existing City
infrastructure (including the fiber network and existing Internet
connections) by using small antennas placed on rooftops throughout the
City. The system delivers basic-level bandwidth, faster then dial up, and
sufficient for communicating by e- mails and browsing the Web.
While convenience for roaming laptop users is certainly one benefit of this
project, the most important incentive behind this program is to bridge the
„digital divide‟ by delivering Internet accessibility to low- income
Newtowne Court Case Study, conducted January 2007
"Beginning in the summer of 2006, the IT Department in the City, in
partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began the
deployment of a free wireless network for the residents of Newtowne
Court as a pilot project for Cambridge Public Internet.
Newtowne Court is a federally funded low- income housing project
administered by the Cambridge Housing Authority. The project contains a
total of 268 domicile units with over 800 residents. Occupancy averages
between three and five individuals per unit, and there are many young and
school-aged children. Creole and Spanish are the two primary languages
spoken by residents of Newtowne Court. Over sixty percent of the
households in Newtowne Court have incomes of less than 50% of the Area
Median Income (or less than about $20,000 per year).
This pilot project demonstrates that technical support and user education
are the most important issues to solve in a network deployment. Since
users – particularly in low- income housing developments – have a wide
variety and age of equipment, it is difficult to provide a universal set of
guidelines that will work for every user. Therefore, a technical support call
center providing users with assistance for their specific problems is
absolutely necessary for a full- scale deployment.
In order to get the most out of a community network, education is also a
Education can include a wide variety of topics from email usage to
network management to website development and everything in between.
By providing such education opportunities – both on and offline – a
community can derive the greatest benefit possible from its wireless