Puerto Rico plugs in populace

In what could be one of the world's most ambitious projects to narrow the

digital divide, Puerto Rico is giving its public housing population access

to the World Wide Web.

Jorge Aponte, the director of Puerto Rico's Office of Management and

Budget, is overseeing the project, which is expected to provide the island's

332 housing projects and roughly 250,000 inhabitants with free Internet

access through the commonwealth's telecommunications network, PRStarNet

(www.prstar.net).

Less than a year after beginning the project, "Puerto Rico will [have

provided] a free Internet access account to each person and family that

cannot pay a private ISP service charge," Aponte said, "and we will have

one of the highest ratios of Internet access/users per thousand citizens

in the world."

Providing such communications access to residents, who generally have lower

incomes than those in the United States and limited education, would expand

their employment and educational opportunities, Aponte said. "I think in

the new economy, these people in the housing projects will have better opportunities

than others in past decades."

Puerto Rico, with a population of 4 million, is nearly three times the

size of Rhode Island. But the region is mostly mountainous, making it difficult

to install the network cable that typically provides Internet access.

Wireless technology has been the key to keeping costs down and connecting

citizens quickly and efficiently. Of 332 projects, plans for 211 projects

have been designed, infrastructure for 101 projects has been installed,

and 21 are fully operational.

The network uses spread spectrum technology, which transmits data at

11 megabits/sec, which is comparable to the T-1 lines many businesses use

for network connections. The entire connectivity project will cost less

than $1 million, said Aponte. The antennae will cost about $300,000, while

labor and other costs will come in at around $500,000.

"The beauty of the use of [wireless networking] is that operating expenses

are minimal, since there is no rental of wire lines," with operating expenses

and preventive maintenance expected to be minimal as well, he said.

Puerto Rico's Public Housing Administration is using a federal grant to

buy about 20 computers per housing project, depending on the number of families

living at a project, with plans to buy more as needed. Computers are going

into projects' community centers, Head Start centers and elementary schools.

According to Carlos Lopez, the housing administration's budget director,

about $3.5 million in federal funds have been earmarked for this project

for fiscal 2001. Costs for each center vary according to the necessary infrastructure

improvements. The housing administration is also partnering with local entrepreneurs

and civic clubs to share initial expenses and training.

The Las Margaritas housing proj-ect, which houses 2,000 to 3,000 residents,

was one of the first to be connected to the Internet. One resident there,

Carmen Rosario, a 36-year-old mother of three young children, called the

government's efforts to wire the project a "fabulous idea because not everybody

can pay for it and everybody can use it."

In her third year at Sacred Heart University, studying human resources

management, Rosario said she has experience using computers and the Internet.

But having access near home has made life easier for her and her children.

Open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., her community center

has about 25 computers, she explained, with two full-time staff members

to help residents with any problems or questions.

The computers frequently go unused during the day, when children are

at school and other residents at work. But the center has computer-training

classes, and Rosario said housing residents believe access to the technology

will be a benefit.

"People who know and are aware of the project think it's good, even

though they don't know how to use the computer," Rosario said. "They bring

their kids and learn along with them."

Felipe Korzenny, a principal and co-founder of Cheskin Research, a Redwood

Shores, Calif.-based market and research firm, said he was "surprised" by

Puerto Rico's efforts but said the people will benefit. "A large proportion

of the people have been economically disadvantaged," he said. "This is a

step in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots."

Earlier this year, in a study documenting the digital divide in the

U.S. Hispanic community, Cheskin reported that "technology adoption [among

Hispanics] is growing faster than previously believed."

Peter Smith, executive director of the Information Technology Association

of America, who spoke at a technology conference in Puerto Rico in August,

said most governments implement technology in a more piecemeal fashion.

The Puerto Rico initiative "is ambitious, and I think it's the right way

to go."

But both Korzenny and Smith said that unless the government offers adequate

workforce training as well as ethical and safety guidance for adults and

children, providing access is pointless.

Aponte said each community center would have full-time staff members

or facilitators to assist residents with technology. He said they will provide

some training and coordinate referrals for formal computer training provided

by local vendors and local and state agencies. The facilitators are teachers

and librarians contracted through the state Department of Education and

earn about $1,600 a month.

Workforce training, coordinated through the housing department, would include

all Microsoft Corp. Office programs, Aponte said, including PowerPoint,

Excel and Word. Learning groups of 20 residents would be scheduled separately

for adults and children.

Such training would help residents raise their income levels, which,

in the housing projects, averages about $11,116 a year, Aponte said. In

particular, it should position them to take advantage of the healthy job

market in Puerto Rico, where unemployment has dropped to 10 percent — from

17 percent in 1993 — with a deficit of workers with information technology

skills.

PRStarNet was conceived several years ago. But giving access to the people,

especially public housing residents, was not a popular idea.

Aponte said he encountered obstacles and indifference to the idea by

government officials because many cabinet members were not technology-minded.

And the cost also ran high.

Aponte, who estimated that the cost to connect Puerto Rico would be

about $30 million, said training government workers was the greatest challenge

but is the best solution to keep costs down and ensure the viability of

the system for years to come.

"Get the government to the community instead of vice versa," Aponte said. "Make it a one-stop shop for services."

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