County efforts to expand access to technology and the Internet advanced today as a County Council Committee approved construction of community centers with high-speed Internet access and training for two low-income housing complexes in Montgomery County.
The Management and Fiscal Policy Committee recommended to the full Council a pilot project that would "bridge the digital divide" by constructing community technology centers at two Housing Opportunity Commission properties, Stewartown Apartments and Shady Grove Apartments. The technology centers would include ongoing computer training for adults and school-aged children and job skills training for adults.
"Empowering all Montgomery Countians to use technology is extremely vital to our County’s future," said Councilmember Marilyn Praisner, chair of the Management and Fiscal Policy Committee. "We can’t afford to leave anyone behind in this digital age."
"Our priorities for high-speed Internet access must continue to be our schools and libraries. These community technology centers can serve these apartment complexes that are more isolated from easy access to school and library computers – and do so in a cost-effective way that makes sense.
"We should leverage private sector dollars to get this whole job done where possible. But the private sector also needs to know what our comprehensive approach will be on this."
The committee rejected County funding of a proposal advanced by the County Executive to also wire every apartment in both complexes with high-speed Internet access at a cost for the total proposal of $6.5 million – or $28,000 per unit for the 238 apartments. The County Executive’s proposal would have tapped the County cable fund to pay the bill, possibly delaying the wiring for high-speed telecommunications for schools and libraries.
"If we draw down the cable fund, we risk delaying access to high-speed Internet service in our schools and libraries," said Councilmember Phil Andrews. "Wiring those institutions gives the most access to the most people."
The committee recommended that the source of funding for the project be through the Community Development Block Grant Program and/or the Housing Opportunities Commission rather than through the cable fund.
The Committee also recommended a computer loan program that would give Stewartown and Shady Grove tenants access to computers for use in their homes that would complement the community technology centers’ equipment, access, and training.
"At the same time as we move ahead with this initiative, the Committee highlighted the need for a comprehensive County action plan to bridge the ‘digital divide’ in Montgomery County," said Councilmember Praisner.
"We have yet to define what ‘access’ and ‘digital divide’ mean for Montgomery County. Only then will we know what the appropriate roles are for government and for the private sector."
The committee recommendation now goes to the full Council for final action.