Digital Divide

Digital Divide

By his own account, Yoely, a resident of Williamsburg in his early 30s and a member of the Satmar Hasidic sect, was raised conservatively. He was taught to see other religions as “idol-worshippers” and, in accordance with Satmar belief, to reject the Zionist movement, considering Israel to be insufficiently religious and dangerous by its very existence to Jews elsewhere in the world. But after reading Zionist writings online, his views have softened.

“It’s okay what they do; I accept it,” he told me at a Williamsburg cafe, where he asked that his last name not be used. But he’s torn. “I really believe I should be more firm about it,” he said.

Yoely has come to regret going online, and his wife and children — the oldest is 11 — have never been. That’s by design. “I don’t want to have it at home,” he said. “According to the rabbis, I’m not supposed to.”

Yoely, one of tens of thousands of Satmar Jews living in Williamsburg, is far from alone in viewing with skepticism and suspicion the growing pervasiveness of the Internet in modern life. (Last May, Orthodox Jews of a similar mind filled the stands at Citi Field to audit a discussion of the dangers unfettered Internet access can pose to members of their faith.)

But in a borough where 20 to 40 percent of households still lack access to high-speed Internet, those reluctant to embrace change have thrown a wrench in the plans of a local telecom company and the Federal Communications Commission, which together are trying to bring broadband to the underserved.

Borough Park-based Xchange Telecom is a regional telecommunications company of modest size, providing phone and broadband service to homes and businesses around the New York metropolitan area. The majority of its customers are in Brooklyn. Xchange participates in the FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides discounted phone service to low-income consumers, subsidized by taxes that are paid by phone companies and, typically, partially passed on to non-subsidized consumers in the form of higher rates. It’s also one of a handful of companies nationwide, and the only one in New York state, taking part in an FCC pilot program to extend Lifeline subsidies to broadband Internet service.

Unsurprisingly, studies show that access to a reliable Internet connection puts local students and households at an advantage. A report from the Office of the New York City Comptroller cited evidence that middle school students whose families were given free computers and discounted Internet service did better on tests, and that having a computer at home increased the likelihood teenagers would graduate from high school. In an October speech, acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon L. Clyburn cited research (industry-sponsored, it’s worth noting) claiming consumers can save thousands of dollars per year shopping online.

“Obviously, broadband delivers value in many other ways, like jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities,” she added.

But some residents just can’t afford to pay for a computer and Internet access. The comptroller’s office’s report found New Yorkers without high-speed access were disproportionately less educated and less affluent. A SUNY-Stony Brook survey cited in the report notes that a majority of those without broadband access cited expense as a reason they hadn’t signed up.

“What the FCC realized is access to broadband is the next digital divide, and a lot of people are not getting broadband because they just can’t afford it,” Xchange general counsel Mordy Gross said.

Households per 1,000 with Internet connections with at least 768 kbps download and at least 200 kbps upload speed
1 - 200
200 - 400
400 - 600
600 - 800
800 - 1,000
Xchange pilot area
Source: FCC

Map tiles by Stamen Design, under CC BY 3.0.

Data by OpenStreetMap, under CC BY SA.
Select a year
A more connected borough. In the past few years, access to high-speed Internet has made its way to most households in Brooklyn. But even today, clearly defined pockets of low connectivity remain.

Under the pilot, Xchange accepted applications for subsidized home broadband service from households in certain ZIP codes in Williamsburg, Borough Park, Kensington, and Midwood from February through October. Applicants had to meet FCC eligibility requirements, which factored in income, participation in other public assistance programs, and whether candidates already had broadband Internet at home. The subsidized access will last for a year.

It’s hard to know the exact number of eligible customers in the pilot areas, said Gross; he pegged it at between 15,000 and 20,000. Now that the nine-month application period is over, however, it’s clear that the program failed to gain significant traction with those eligible. Only 400 customers signed up.

“Because of the limited window of availability, I don’t think it was as successful in terms of numbers,” Gross said. Whether the program continues beyond the initial pilot year, and in what form, is ultimately up to the FCC, which is set to review the results of the pilot and surveys given to customers next year, he said.

Marketing the program was somewhat of a challenge, said Itzy Eckstein, vice president of consumer sales at Xchange, since part of the pilot’s goal is to determine the right level of government subsidy by charging different rates in different ZIP codes. That made it difficult for the company to advertise prices for the program at large, as customers in less-subsidized neighborhoods might have felt like victims of a “bait-and-switch,” he said. And some people eligible for the program just weren’t interested, Gross said.

“The pilot helped solve the cost, but to get people to want to use the Internet they need to want to use the Internet,” he said. “A lot of low-income people don’t see the need for Internet access at all, and that’s what we’ve been finding.” Others want access only to a sanitized subset of the Internet.

“Residentially Brooklyn is a collection of neighborhoods, and those neighborhoods, whether it’s Asian communities, Jewish communities, other communities, Muslim communities — they want certain subsets of clean information,” Xchange President Darren Feder said. “These are pious people.”

To help put these pious customers at ease, Xchange has long offered a custom filtering service.

“We work within ethnic groups like the Hasidic groups and other groups if they want to have a community-based filter, where they have a community standard on what kind of Internet they’ll allow through. Some of them say ‘No YouTube,” some of them say ‘Yes YouTube’, etc.,” Gross said.

The filtering technology, called JNet, was developed for the Orthodox Jewish community, but it’s general software that can work for anyone who wants filtered access, Eckstein said.

Some customers only want access to email or sites they use for their businesses, or to shopping and banking portals, he said. “It can vary: some people will say, ‘I’m a travel agent — I only want travel sites open; I don’t want anything else open,’” he said, while some want to allow at least limited recreational use. Since even seemingly innocuous sites sometimes contain images customers might find objectionable — like a scantily clad woman in an ad on a bank home page — the filters can detect and weed out images showing too much skin, Eckstein said.

“There has been a big movement in the Orthodox Jewish world over the past two years to increase awareness of the fact that you can’t trust yourself and everybody should have a filter,” said Gross. “My oldest is nine years old and he knows way too much. So if I didn’t have a filter at home, I’d be very worried giving him access to a computer, and in today’s society, you can’t not give them access.”

Yoely, on the other hand, considers even filtered Internet too potentially corrupting to introduce into his home. When he needs to get online, he mostly uses the Internet at friends’ offices, he told me. There, he checks his email, shops, reads blogs and news sites, and visits YouTube.

Rabbi Moshe Drew, president and founder of Technology Awareness Group, a nonprofit that staffs a round-the-clock phone bank to help Orthodox Jews deal with issues of technology and faith, says that there’s no “one-size-fits-all approach” to filtering.

“There’s a difference between LinkedIn and Snapchat,” he said. “If they’re going into it for a legit reason, and they want to use it for business or they want to use it for a family connection, so be it.”

Those same basic desires — to conduct business and stay in touch with family and friends while steering clear of the seedier side of the Internet — were echoed by the students and staff at Older Adults Technology Services, a nonprofit that offers computer classes and access to seniors throughout the five boroughs.

“The biggest thing we address is fear: I’ll break it; I can’t do it; I’m too old to learn,” said Barbara J. Kelly, OATS’s director of program development. “You still have people who say, ‘I don’t need it.’”

At a recent beginning-level class in a computer lab at Quincy Senior Residence in Bedford-Stuyvesant, OATS instructor Susan Paul asked her students what they thought about the Internet, before guiding them to their first websites.

“You can buy, sell and trade — and also get ripped off,” one woman said.

But despite such misgivings, demand for classes is always high at Quincy — where nonresident seniors are also allowed to enroll in the computer classes and, once they graduate, use the computer lab — and other OATS sites, said Kelly.

Attendees of an Older Adults Technology Services computer class assist one another.

Quincy resident Lenette Kinion, who worked as a social worker and ran a daycare center before retirement, said she was among the first to take the OATS class.

“I learned how to Skype with my family,” Kinion said. “My grandson was in Germany, and I learned how to talk with him, when he was in the Army.”

Now, she even has her own Facebook account and iPhone.

“I didn’t have an iPhone but my daughter had one, so I kept complaining, ‘I want an iPhone,’” she said. Now, her daughter’s helping her learn to use FaceTime.

“She was laughing at me trying to use the right buttons,” Kinion said with a laugh of her own.

Kinion still visits Paul’s classes at Quincy to help others learn to use technology.

“There’s just such an incredible need and desire to learn,” Paul said. “It’s kind of an overall hunger.”

Paul previously worked as a typist and word processor at law firms. She always enjoyed showing lawyers and secretaries tricks to help them create nice-looking documents electronically, she said. Now, she helps seniors at OATS sites around the city master the mouse and find everything from medical information to music online.

“Pandora, of course, is really big,” she said, though the music seniors like can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. Motown is popular in Bed-Stuy, and she watched Psy’s “Gangnam Style” video with a class in Flushing, she said.

“I’d forgotten how many pelvic thrusts are in that video, so I was very embarrassed,” she said. She quickly decided to play Taiwanese pop star Teresa Teng, a student recommendation, instead.

“It’s the most fun job I’ve ever had,” she said.

The OATS classes are focused on senior citizens, but other New Yorkers who want to get online or take computer classes can turn to the network of computer resource centers in dozens of the parks department’s recreation centers. Access to those computer labs and classes is included with rec center membership, which is free for anyone under 18 and $25 for those between 18 and 24 or age 62 and up.

“I have people of all ages learning to use Excel and people of all ages writing blogs and making video,” as well as students simply doing homework, said Ana-Maria Campos, the director of the resource centers.

“People are writing off-Broadway plays in some of our rooms or creating their own music videos,” she said. “Anyone who might be looking for work [or] in work transition and needs a place to get work done or work away from home, it’s a great resource.”

The New York City Housing Authority also operates bookmobile-style roaming computer labs that tour some of the authority’s housing developments, offering Internet-enabled computers and wireless access to housing residents and others in the area.

“Many use them to search for jobs; apply for employment online; print out forms; and work on their résumés,” according to a statement from the housing authority. “Senior residents generally come to learn how to use a computer and/or open an email account; youth use social media sites and research information for school; while others may need assistance in looking for a doctor, a school or to register for an exam.”

With the Internet now vital to so many ordinary tasks — including some, like job hunting, that are increasingly difficult to do any other way — it’s not surprising that the FCC and companies like Xchange are working to get holdouts online. But the challenge remains of convincing some that the Internet’s benefits outweigh its costs — financial and otherwise.

Yoely, for his part, said his children will likely one day need to go online, even as he remains conflicted about his own experience with the Internet.

“It’s a good thing and it’s a bad thing,” he told me. “It’s a good thing that I accept people more, but I feel like I cheated on my own religion.”

Steven Melendez is a freelance reporter and data journalist. His work has been featured by WNYC Radio, Gothamist, Bushwick Daily, and the Associated Press. He lives in Williamsburg.

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