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MATTHEW PETRILLO, FREE SPEECH RADIO NEWS: Seven-year-old Lonnette Wiley frowns in concentration as she maneuvers her mouse to zigzag the white arrow across her computer screen. With one finger, she carefully types the name of favorite websites.

LONNETTE WILEY: [incompr.]

PETRILLO: She says she likes to email her dad, talk to friends on Facebook, and is learning to do research online.

WILEY: I–sometimes my teacher ask me questions, and then I will, like, search them on gaggle [sic].

PETRILLO: But last year, the second grader struggled to do computer homework. Her only access to a computer was at the library, which usually closed two hours after school got out. Wiley is still learning where all the letters are on the keyboard, so she never had enough time to finish her assignments.

WILEY: I would be trying to type fast, but I’d be looking for the letters that I need.

PETRILLO: Wiley currently lives with her mother at the People’s Emergency Center in Philadelphia. It’s a transitional residence for homeless single women and their children. The dozens of families it serves had no in-house computer access until last month, when the city opened a computer lab in the center. Living in the digital dark ages made it difficult for young residents to do homework and for moms like Florence Delbridge to learn computer skills or find a job.

FLORENCE DELBRIDGE: –never had access to a computer. So I’m learning. I’m also in computer classes. And I’d like to learn all I can, because I never had the opportunity to.

PETRILLO: Like Delbridge, about a quarter of the US population lacks Internet access at home. The rate is even higher in Philadelphia, where city officials estimate 41 percent of residents have no Internet access. But Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter plans to change that.

MICHAEL NUTTER, MAYOR OF PHILADELPHIA: You can’t truly be free if you don’t have information. You can’t be connectable, the availability to be connected [sic].

PETRILLO: So Mayor Nutter has added technology improvements to Philadelphia’s most recent infrastructure plan, which typically maps out future transportation and utility systems, housing developments, and public buildings. Experts like Andrew Buss from the city’s Division of Technology say that’s a vital step in closing the digital divide.

ANDREW BUSS, PHILADELPHIA’S DIVISION OF TECHNOLOGY: It’s a new mindset that technology has to be imbued across the city’s infrastructure, and it’s a very important part of it.

PETRILLO: Over the next two years, Philadelphia plans to create public Wi-Fi spots in parks and on subways and trains, which will mostly benefit people with laptops, notebooks, or smart phones. But 25 percent of the city lives in poverty, and many cannot afford this technology. Those without computers and laptops could go to one of the dozens of computer centers the city is opening, many of them in low-income communities, and some at homeless shelters. Along with access to the Internet, the city is providing free digital literacy and job training. Still, some experts say the digital divide cannot be closed by public computer centers alone. Cities should instead invest in home computer and Internet access, says Nicol Turner-Lee. She’s director of the Media and Technology Institute for the the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. She says that would do more to close the digital divide.

NICOL E. TURNER-LEE, DIRECTOR, MEDIA AND TECHNOLOGY INSTITUTE, JCPES: The ability to accelerate in-home broadband access allows people to have this unlimited connection to a resource that will, you know, change their lives and transform their lives. That’s really the ideal place where you have citizens connected where they live.

PETRILLO: Lee also says cities should provide a universally accessible Internet platform, especially in underserved rural or minority communities.

TURNER-LEE: What the platform will enable is a whole new marketplace of devices that connect to that platform, content that makes it even more relevant for American citizens, and it will birth new opportunities for our marketplace that I think will drive economic development and, ultimately, national growth.

PETRILLO: But computer labs appear to be a weak substitute for the ambitious goal the city set to achieve about six years ago. Philadelphia seemed to be leading the nation’s efforts to close the digital divide when it tried to make the city completely connected through low-cost, city-wide Wi-Fi. But the plan met a number of obstacles. Verizon sued the city, arguing local governments should not subsidize a private industry like Internet service. The city eventually reached an agreement with Verizon, because 40 percent of the population was not connected to the Internet at the time. But the plan ultimately failed after EarthLink, the city’s Internet provider, pulled out from the deal and left it in the hands of city officials. The city said it was too expensive to sustain and decided to let it die instead of prioritizing it. Even as the city sprinkles dozens of new computer centers around Philadelphia, it currently remains unclear how it plans to fund the centers after two years, when a federal grant dries up. Matthew Petrillo, The Real News Network, Philadelphia.

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DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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