When PCs for People first announced its plans to open up a community tech hub in Denver back in February, the organization couldn’t have predicted just how critical technology would become in the coming months.
As COVID-19 sweeps the nation — upending nearly every facet of American life along its path — having internet-connected devices has been seen by many as the country’s only saving grace.
In an age of social distancing, having access to the internet has allowed parents to work from home, students to continue their education, and helped families facing hardship find the right resources to keep their households afloat. It has been the primary source of information, entertainment, and social connection.
The need for digital access is only accelerating as Americans navigate life in a new normal, and are likely to carry online convenience into a post-COVID world. But it also exposed a deep digital divide that PCs for People say has been there all along.
“We’ve had an incredible amount of demand in the middle of this crisis, but we knew it was there — it’s what we do,” says Tony Frank, a business development manager for PCs for People in Denver. “We were telling people that we work in schools where 50 percent or more [student families] do not have a solid device in their home, and they don’t have reliable internet. But now this crisis hits and it really amplifies it and makes it clear that this tool isn’t there for so many families.”
According to the 2018 U.S. Census, roughly 16 percent of Americans were living without an internet subscription. For households with incomes less than $20,000, that number was as high as 37 percent.
It’s a problem thousands of Denver families have grappled with long before coronavirus. When schools were still in session, Frank says that lack of access sends some students scrambling to complete homework assignments before the last bell, waiting for hours to borrow a smartphone from a parent — or worse, not submitting their work at all.
During the pandemic, some low-income families have resorted to sitting in parking lots, including at libraries or cafes, just to tap into the WiFi networks. And the lack of internet access isn’t just affecting students, Frank says. It’s affecting low-income workers, those seeking career advancement, and seniors, too.
“We see the disadvantage that these families have in this economy,” he says. “If they don’t have the tools, the learning stops. The opportunity stops.”
PCs for People is a non-profit organization that provides refurbished devices and affordable broadband internet to low-income families. Since 1998, the company has distributed more than 80,000 computers and provided nearly 30,000 families with access to affordable broadband internet.
Long considered a national leader in digital inclusion, PCs for People is now on the heels of launching its latest initiative in Denver, a new development called The Community Tech Hub, to help the region close its digital divide.
The Community Technology Hub, located in Northeast Park Hill, will transform an existing 20,300 square foot warehouse into a facility featuring a technology training center, computer refurbishing and repair tech stations, a certified data security facility, an e-waste recycling center, as well as an on-site retail store.
The organization has partnered with Gary Community Investments, which includes The Piton Foundation, to spearhead its efforts. The Piton Foundation has provided $252,000 to support PCs for People as they work to complete the building renovation.
The dedicated effort has also helped the organization fuel additional partnerships, including its latest with Comcast, who shares in the organization’s digital inclusion mission. The telecommunications company is behind the facility’s Gig-speed network, which included installing infrastructure to provide new lines to the building site.
Frank says having reliable, high-speed internet is critical to powering PCs for People’s refurbishing operations, classrooms, and educational programming.
“With better, faster internet we can install software image (like Windows 10 Pro and other productivity software), and then we can quickly install that software on up to 20 devices at a time,” he explains. “It’s going to add that efficiency. Using that same network, we can provide educational programs and support the community with that access.”
With Comcast at its side, Frank says PCs for People will also be able to help community members access affordable internet at home.
“We saw Comcast quickly become a leader in the space, working to ensure that you could sign up for internet, and trying to knock down any barriers to ramp up the number of families getting internet,” he adds. “We feel like partnering with Comcast will help us add a lot more opportunity. They really understand what the digital divide is and why we need to address it.”
Despite the uncertainty that lies ahead, Frank says PCs for People is expanding its business partnerships to obtain usable devices to meet the increased demand and is planning to open The Community Tech Hub to the public as soon as stay-at-home orders allow.
“I grew up in Denver, and it’s powerful to see how we’re giving back to the communities that have given me so much,” he says. “These are challenging times, but there is a lot of work to do. I’m super excited about how this tech hub is going to impact tech across the region.”