Google, HUD on a mission to narrow the digital divide

Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt and HUD Secretary Julian Castro share an engaging "chat" on providing Internet service to low-income households.

Widespread access to the Internet should be made available to low-income households to close the so-called digital divide, and it needs to happen soon.

That was the conclusion Thursday in a chat between Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and US Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. The pair met at Alphabet's headquarters in Mountain View, California, to discuss ways to close the socioeconomic gap created by different levels of access to technology, a disparity commonly known as the digital divide.

Castro, who oversees a federal initiative to expand Internet access to the poor called ConnectHome, told Schmidt that more than half of low-income Americans and the vast majority living in public housing either don't have Internet access or they can't afford it.


Alphabet Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt (left) and HUD Secretary Julian Castro believe more low-income households across the country should have Internet access. Google provides free high-speed broadband service to select cities participating in HUD's ConnectHome initiative.

Paul Blackfield / HUD

"Either way, they are not reaping the benefits of being connected," Castro said.

ConnectHome, which launched in July in 27 cities and an Oklahoma tribal community, aims to bring high-speed broadband access to over 275,000 low-income households across the country and connect some 200,000 children to the Web.

Schmidt said his company is committed to making ConnectedHome successful and Castro plans to hold him to it. For its part, Google is providing its Fiber high-speed Internet service for free in select public housing communities in Atlanta, Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri and Nashville.

The HUD chair envisions a program that would provide broadband to every public housing unit by the time his term expires next year. Castro told Schmidt the main objective of ConnectHome is helping young people succeed.

"Brainpower is the new currency of success in the 21st century global economy," he said.

In addition to Alphabet, other notable companies participating in ConnectHome include CenturyLink, Cox Communications and Sprint, which are providing either free or low-cost Internet service. Companies such as Best Buy and GitHub are offering computer training or funding.

Schmidt recalled that when Castro asked if Google would participate, he observed that public housing complexes are more dense and installing broadband would be simple.

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

When Castro was asked after the nearly hour-long talk what else could the tech industry could do for ConnectHome, he said more devices are needed, including laptop and desktop computers and tablets. Young people can't do everything on mobile devices, he quipped.

"Who does all of their homework on a smartphone?" he said.

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