Eliminate the Digital Divide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 218

After his daughter asked how her classmates could do their school homework if they did not have a computer or Internet access at home, Pat Millen's family formed E2D - a nonprofit organization called Eliminate the Digital Divide. This week, Pat and I talk about their strategy, which was created in the footprint of North Carolina's municipal MI-Connection but is now expanding through Charlotte and working with incumbent operators. E2D has arranged an innovative and replicable program to distribute devices, provide training, and arrange for an affordable connection. Along the way, they developed a sustainable funding model rather than merely asking people with deep pockets for a one-time donation. An important lesson from E2D is the richness of opportunity when people take action locally. That is often among the hardest steps when success is far from assured - but these local actions are the ones that can be the most successful because they are tuned to local needs, assets, and culture.

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Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."


Pat Millen: I know for a fact that there are a lot of kids at this school that can't afford a computer, much less the Internet. What are we going to do about it?

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 218 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. The idea for Eliminate the Digital Divide, also known as E2D, began in 2012, and today the non-profit has grown by leaps and bounds. The North Carolina organization finds a way to bring computers and low-cost Internet access to school kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. Since Internet access is critical today for online homework assignments and research, Pat Millen and his family felt the need to help others. The next thing they knew, Pat was president and one of the co-founders of E2D, and the organization was working with volunteers, corporate supporters, and municipal leaders to get low-income students connected at home. E2D works with one of the municipal networks we cover, MI-Connection, to bring ongoing Internet access to families that use the program. Listen for how a publicly owned network approach of such a program that is meant to lift up members of the community. For more on the organization, check out the E2D website at e-2-d.org. Now here are Chris and Pat Millen, co-founder and president of Eliminate the Digital Divide.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and today I'm speaking with Pat Millen, a co-founder and president of E2D, Eliminate the Digital Divide. Welcome to the show.

Pat Millen: Thanks for having me, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: The last time we talked, we were on a webinar with Next Century Cities, and I made a little joke about E2D and wondering if that was named after a Star Wars character. It was such a good joke I decided to bring it back, inexplicably perhaps. Tell me, how did Eliminate the Digital Divide come to be?

Pat Millen: Yeah, so it's actually kind of a neat story. This was four years ago, basically. My daughter who was 12 years old at the time came home from her local public middle school and said, "Dad, I don't get it. Every single assignment we get in school assumes that you have a computer at home to do the work. I know for a fact that there are a lot of kids at this school that can't afford a computer, much less the Internet. That just doesn't seem really fair to me. What are we going to do about it?" It was just one of those really insightful questions that my daughter brought up and it was one that, as a family, we just kind of got stuck on it and said, "You know what? We live in a community in Davidson, North Carolina and a broader community in Charlotte, North Carolina where the disparity between the very rich and the very poor is pretty wide, but there's no reason in the world that there aren't ways for us to work together to help provide basic technology for these families that would really struggle to achieve obtaining that themselves.”

Christopher Mitchell: This is the part that I think is really great is that you actually went and took action and started doing something. What did you do first?

Pat Millen: Well we tried to think big but to start with we thought we'd start small. We went to the local elementary school and just went to the principal and the counselors and said -- By the way, we had already talked to the mayor of the town and said, "This seems ridiculous that there really are these pockets of digital exclusion. What do you think we can do about it?" He said, "Well let's start at the elementary school." We went to the principal and said, "Hey, can you count the number of families that you don't think have the Internet available to them at home?" He said, "Yeah. Give me two days because we know that the teachers know very specifically who doesn't have the Internet. There are lots of clues." They don't have email addresses from the family. That would be one. Long story short, the principal came back after a couple days and said, "We have exactly 54 families at this school that we are very certain don't have the Internet at home." As a family, we said, "Okay, let's figure out a way how we can come up with a solution for these 54 families." Our presumption at the time was that $300 would probably, we would be able to afford getting some sort of a basic computer for them as well as a year for highly discounted Internet. We were looking at solutions that would cost about $300 a piece. We're going, "Okay, that's about $15,000 that we have to raise from our community." By the way, our community that has plenty of high net worth individuals and neighborhoods. "Let's go raise that $15,000." Then we started to think about a little more. One way to raise $15,000 is to go to somebody wealthy in town and say, "Hey, give us $15,000. We want to solve this societal issue in our town." The more we thought about it we said, "You know what? That's not a sustainable solution." That fixes a quick problem but we ought to look into coming up with bigger, more sustainable solutions so that if this thing works, if we can get a buy-in at the $50, $100, my daughter did a lemonade stand and raised $16. If we could raise the $15,000 that way and get the community to become the solution as opposed to just a couple of people or one company, now we're actually coming up with a more sustainable solution.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to get back to talking more about that solution, but let's just go down one quick side road and that's why is it important to have access in the home, whereas, I'm guessing, your community has public libraries and perhaps other places where a family might be able to go to get Internet access from time to time?

Pat Millen: Right. I think we need to think in the most practical sense. We like to think about the families after we're able to help them get a computer and the Internet at home. Prior to them getting one of our computers and one of our solutions, we think about that kid researching papers using just his tiny cell phone screen, right? That's incredibly difficult. You can't type a paper on a telephone.

Christopher Mitchell: I've made that point many times, yes.

Pat Millen: Yeah. Then think about the kid staying after school in the media center of the school until the very last second that the janitor needs to lock the door so that he can do his work. Then think about the same kid walking through all kinds of weather to get to the public library and hop on one of their computers.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and if I can just jump in for second, one of our best libraries in St. Paul is in an area that's next to a half-abandoned strip mall. You have all kinds of activities happening there that you don't want kids exposed to when they’re trying to get their homework done.

Pat Millen: That's exactly right. Think about that same kid walking home in the dark through some of the toughest neighborhoods in the area. Think about the kid while he's on the computer at the library getting tapped out because he's used his time allocation and there are 25 other people in line waiting to get on a computer, and so there's a limited amount of time. Then think about this very same kid going through the motions of walking through the rain and the dark or the heat and the sun to get to the library that's two miles from his house. Then think of him taking measure of his life's prospects. "I can't get this work done. I'm not going to be able to pass this class. My family is so poor, shouldn't I just go ahead and drop out and go try to find a job?" It's at that moment that you see the ultimate impact of what E2D, Eliminate the Digital Divide is. Every kid that gets a computer and connectivity has that greater chance to be successful and to have a positive outcome with his academic experience in school and every one of those kids that graduates that might otherwise not graduate, that kid has a chance to really change his life in a different way, a positive way.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Let's get back to the, I would say the two familiar challenges with eliminating the Digital Divide and you addressed both of them. The first is a physical computer. How do you deal with that? What's your solution?

Pat Millen: Our original solution was we were just going to buy really, really inexpensive computers off of eBay or go to Best Buy and buy Chromebooks when they were on mega-sale. Then about 3 months into our existence I had spoken to our local -- The largest company that's local to where we live is Lowe's -- Their corporate headquarters is a couple miles down the road. I went to a friend of mine at Lowe's who is relatively up on the organizational chart and I said, "You guys got computers that decommission from time to time. You think there's any chance we could get our hands on those?" He said, "Yeah. Let me get back to you and see what we can do." About a week later he called me and said, "We're going to get you guys 500 laptops indefinitely."

Christopher Mitchell: That's pretty great.

Pat Millen: It's an unbelievable amount of laptops and really, a total game changer for us because we were able to receive these laptops. We then went to Microsoft and said, "Hey, do you have any way for us to purchase inexpensive operating systems or productivity software?" They're like, "Yep. You guys qualify brilliantly since you are re-purposing computers that have already had our licenses where you can put new licenses on them but we're not going to charge very much money for them." We also then had the wonderful fortune of running into a gentleman who had just retired from Duke Energy as a computer engineer. This gentleman, Al Sudduth, took it upon himself to reimage all of the computers from Lowe's with this new software. The next think you know, we've got 500 solutions that we're now ready to bring forth. From that moment, we got into the business of talking to companies and begging them for the decommissioning inventory and the story's just been great from there. We have been able to come up with solutions now for over 1,200 families in the area. We're now working primarily in Charlotte Center with five of the lowest income high schools in Charlotte. What's exciting about that is the 1,200 families that we've served, what's even more exciting is we're going to serve 1,000 families between now and Thanksgiving. We're essentially doubling in size in the next 3 months over our entire three and a half year existence.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. Now I feel like there's this moment where someone like me, if I was in the audience, might be thinking, "This is really wonderful what you've done." I would not take anything away from that. If I'm thinking holistically, I don't want the United States to be dependent on a family in Davidson thinking, "How can we solve this problem?" And going out to find these companies that are supportive and that sort of thing. It is the sort of thing where I think it shows that when you are in a community and you take action, you can make things happen. When you start asking around, people are of good faith, and you can find these sorts of solutions and put them together. At least that's something I think I take away from it. Is that accurate?

Pat Millen: The first thing I would say is that what started as a family discussion very quickly became hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. This is no longer just a mom and pop shop. We have lots of people that give just dozens and hundreds of hours to us to help make this happen now. Ultimately though, I do think these are solutions that exist in lots of places. I feel like every city has, hiding in plain sight, thousands and thousands of computers in office buildings and yes, everybody has some plan, plus or minus, as to what they're going to do with their computers. Some of them send them to recyclers, some of them sell them to their employees, but in just asking for laptops we've been able to come up with quite a few sources that believe in what we do. Chris, that's one point that I'd really like to make. When I say this is what we do, we try to get computers that people don't need anymore, we try to fix them and get them to people who need them desperately, “Will you help make an investment in what it is that we're doing by making a donation to us?” I don't care where you are on the political spectrum, in a faith-based spectrum, everybody understands why that is beneficial to society. It is absolutely the easiest ask you could ever make to say, "You don't want it anymore? We can make it work for somebody else in ways that it never worked for these people before."

Christopher Mitchell: That's, I think, a great description of how we can move forward and how you have moved forward very successfully with getting the physical devices that people need in their homes to be able to do this work and be able to access the Internet to do homework and all of that. The next challenge is the recurring expense of Internet access. To some extent, I think this is where I get really interested because -- I'll try and give a very brief synopsis so you don't spend too much time on it -- You're in a community, one of two, Davidson and Mooresville where the city operates the cable network because years ago you had this company Adelphia that went bankrupt and the city had the right to buy the network from them and it did. Although, I think it's important to note that in buying it, it estimated it would need a certain amount of money and when it bought the network it found that that network needed far more work and actually had fewer subscribers than it had been told and so therefore went immediately into a loss mode. It was losing money and it was very frustrating for people that they were then having to subsidize the network in ways that were not expected. I think a flipside of that is that the network has to be more responsive to the community than if Time Warner Cable was up. I'm curious if you can – Well, first of all, if you would amend anything that I've said -- but how you went about working with the cable network to make sure people would have recurring access without it breaking the back.

Pat Millen: Yeah. Everything you said is exactly true. The company is called MI-Connection. It is frequently called lots of other things by the municipal owners, all the citizens, because it has become a bit of tricky debt load for these municipalities. I think it's slowly over time going to justify it's purchase. The bottom line is, I went to the people on the board of My Connection and said, "Hey, I'm one of the people that owns this company. This is what we are doing and we really need you to make a significant gesture to low-income families in this area that couldn't possibly afford your bandwidth at commercial prices, but for whom it is so critically important. The good news is every single one of these families that we can help make into MI-Connection customers at this other level, almost by definition is upwardly mobile. We think, if you wire these houses and that these families become more successful and begin to tilt the spiral of intergenerational poverty toward a more successful life outcome, they're going to be buying HBO from you soon enough. You help us, we'll help you.” They came up with a plan that might cost me $90 or $100 that they were willing to offer to our client partners for $14 a month with a qualification based on free and reduced lunch and other sorts of aspects that define the families as being low-income. That's worked really, really well.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Was there a discussion about it or was there any pushback or was this something that board was more or less immediately thinking, "Well that makes sense to us."

Pat Millen: There was no pushback whatsoever. I'd be lying if I didn't tell you that the way I sort of proposed it to them was to say, "You know what? You guys need a positive story. You need to be telling stories about why MI-Connection is so great for our area beyond just having cable and trying to keep the Adelphia infrastructure alive. There's so much negative press about this group. “There has been over the life period that it's been a municipally owned company. We just went to them and said, "Listen. This is an automatic win. If you are helping this many people achieve what their kids need to see done at the school level, this is great for our community, it's great for your company. Let's do this thing." I was expecting some resistance. I got no resistance. They were like, "Fantastic. This is a great idea."

Christopher Mitchell: Then it's worth nothing that a family is going to pay $14 a month for Internet service and the physical hardware is not free, right? What's the expectation from the family.

Pat Millen: Right. The original plan that we did with our families in Davidson and Cornelius, which Cornelius, North Carolina, is also another MI-Connection group, was they paid basically $10 a month for a year and what they got for their 10 months is they got the Internet through MI-Connection, we partially subsidize that. They got a really good refurbished laptop with Microsoft OS 7 and Microsoft Office 2010. Then they also digital literacy training. We used a ton of local volunteers, many of whom are Davidson college students who just very generously donated time to help these families understand and appreciate what impact beyond just going online, a computer can have on a family.

Christopher Mitchell: Then I think there's one other piece that I wanted to raise up regarding how this works with regard to MI-Connection and that's the Comcast program, which is very similar, $10 a month for a connection, is famously difficult to navigate and we've had some experience with people that I know who had trouble just working their way through the bureaucracy. One of the things I always hope is that when it comes to a locally owned network there will be much less of that and these programs would be much smoother for these families to navigate. Has that been the case?

Pat Millen: In the model that I just described, it was definitely the case because we worked with the families to establish that connection with MI-Connection. We actually paid that bill for the first year so all their bills came to us, but after the first year, then the billing would go to those families but they would've experienced a budgeting pattern and sort of be prepared for that. After the first year, they became MI-Connection customers to the extent that they received a bill at their home and there have been very few that have turned it off. I mean, it now has become a critical part of their lives. What I would say, generally speaking, though is that the three-legged stool which is digital inclusion, which is devices, connectivity, and digital literacy training. Three years ago I would have told you that connectivity was really going to be by far the most vexing aspect of how we were going to be able to help families, because particularly moving into Charlotte, I don't have a municipal network available for me to say, "Hey, let's do the right thing." We've got all the regular, usual suspects in Charlotte. We've got Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, now Google Fiber, and what was going to make that a streamlined process where we would be able to have offers that would be reasonable for our families. I thought that was going to be a problem forever, and I'm just so excited about the fact that so many of these companies see the value of why they should be working with low income families to establish an entry-level point that families can handle.

Christopher Mitchell: The other piece I was curious about is what is the rate, the connection rate, for the low-income families in MI-Connection?

Pat Millen: They're getting, I think, 20 Mbps / 5 Mbps which is okay.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Well that's actually better on average from what I've seen of these programs. Some of these programs are remarkably fast like Chattanooga, although it's a little bit more expensive and it's complicated for why. But most of the connections seem to be like 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 15 Mbps / 1 Mbps, something like that so 20 Mbps / 5 Mbps is remarkable.

Pat Millen: 20 Mbps / 5 Mbps is remarkable. I think the new Google Fiber plan in Charlotte that's going to be 25 up, 25 down for $15 a month, that is just incredibly, incredibly strong.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's, to some extent, that's also something you can do. Obviously the symmetrical, you need fiber, high-quality wireless to do the symmetrical high upload, but it's also the bigger the network is, the more that you can offer those faster connections without it impacting the bottom line of the network in any way.

Pat Millen: Yeah, no question. I got to tell you, I give a lot of credit -- I love all telecoms equally because that's the way we need to deal with everybody. What I will say is that Google Fiber in coming to Charlotte a couple of years ago, and it does seem like it's taken forever for them to dig up these holes and get everybody online, but they're really doing it. They're not just going to high income neighborhoods and towns. They're also, as they're building out this network, they're working with lots of neighborhoods that fall very comfortably into the E2D land. I think they're doing a great job as corporate citizens to not just build out networks for people that can afford gigabit speed, but to also provide connectivity along the way for lots and lots of neighborhoods. Over time, it's going to be, hopefully everybody that needs that.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I hope so. My observation has been that, and I'll pick on some of these companies, like AT&T and Verizon, I think, have been very reluctant to build out beyond the best audiences. In my mind, Google will build out to just about everyone. They have left some people behind in some areas, but, as far as companies that are using a market driven model go, I think Google has been much more aggressive at trying to connect everyone than most of its competitors in this space.

Pat Millen: Yeah, I totally agree. I think AT&T's new program's pretty good. The $10 program that they're offering. I think it's one of these things where the pressure begins with the government and with the FCC saying, "Ah, ah, ah. We gave you some of the spectrum. We really need you to respect all of the citizens." When companies like MI-Connection and Google Fiber and now I think AT&T, and Sprint's got a new program that's going to be coming online, by the time you add that with the lifeline program, everybody's going to have to come to a certain level to meet each other at some point. Now whether or not they obscure these offers with incredibly difficult hurdles to jump over from a paperwork, or from a device, standpoint, that remains to be seen. I am encouraged that the folks that are sort of setting those new lower levels, a lot of companies seem to realize that they're going to need to get there as well if they're no on their way already.

Christopher Mitchell: The last thing that I wanted to make sure we cover is something that I think comes up a lot when you're dealing with programs to help make sure everyone in our society has access to common infrastructure or other aspects of life that are necessary and that's whether or not being a part of these programs is stigmatizing. I'm curious, to any extent, if you've seen any kind of potential for shaming or if you've tried to structure the program in ways that would make sure families did not feel ashamed in needing to take a laptop from you and have this service and how you've wrestled with that.

Pat Millen: I'll be honest with you, I don't think we really see much of that at all. Now I don't do exit interviews with everybody to say, "How did you feel today when you got your computers?" What I can tell you is, is that, first of all, we have lots of different kinds of computers that go out the door. It's not like government cheese where everybody shows up and takes the exact same block of cheese with them. Our computers, we're handing out Ford Tauruses. We're not handing out BMWs. We're not handing out yugos. We're handing out Lenovo ThinkPads and they all look plus or minus the same and they don't have E2D stickers on them announcing, "Hey, look at me. I qualified for the E2D program." These are computers, right? They're commodities. They're HPs, they're Dells, they're Lenovos. I don't think if you acquire an E2D computer that one day later anyone would have the slightest idea how you came to obtain that computer.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Well that's definitely a good reason to engage in procurement the way you have with looking at some of these local resources getting computers and make sure you get a heterogeneous, no, I'm not going to pronounce that word right. Make sure that you get a stock of computers that are not, in any way, distinguishable. Let me ask one final question on the personal level which is, I'm very impressed that a family that says, "Yes, this is a problem and yes we are going to do something about it," when you go back to your daughter bringing that problem home. Was there a point where you were just thinking, "Oh, I don't know. Are we going to try and fail or is this going to be worth our effort?" Did you have any doubts as you were working on it?

Pat Millen: I don't operate in doubt. I've been a serial entrepreneur all of my life. I've grown a sports marketing business for 25 years, and E2D was based on one pilot going to the next pilot going to the next pilot. We made mistakes along the way and we fixed mistakes along the way. After a certain amount of time I just kept seeing more and more opportunity for us to have more impact within the Charlotte community. It got to a point where I just said, "You know what? I think it's time to move and do this full-time." I basically retired from my sports marketing company and do this all the time. That's not necessarily sustainable in the sense that not everyone has a wife that has a good job that can make that sort of thing happen, but I wouldn't have it any other way. This really feels like a calling.

Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you so much for taking the time to tell us more about E2D. I think it's a very inspiring approach and I hope that it does inspire others to copy it. Thank you so much for all your time today.

Pat Millen: Thank you, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris and Pat Millen, co-founder and president of Eliminate the Digital Divide or E2D. They were talking about the E2D program in North Carolina that brings computers and affordable Internet access to homes of school kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter too where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Thank you to the group Roller Genoa for their song "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms" licensed through Creative Commons and thank you for listening to episode 218 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.