With high-speed, fiber-optic internet soon to alter the virtual landscape of the peninsula—installation is slated for completion by the end of 2022—Brooksville resident Doug Cowan is spearheading a digital equity effort. Cowan’s goal is to help people understand what is available in terms of discounted monthly internet fees (based on household income), free computer literacy courses (both in-person or online) and eligibility for free or reduced-cost devices (new or refurbished).
A retired radiologist and self-described community volunteer, Cowan notes that the impending availability of internet access has “huge implications for the entire peninsula as far as addressing the digital equity divide….There’s a ton of stuff that would support everyone in the community—whether you are currently computer literate or not.”
Discounted monthly internet fees
The first thing Cowan is hoping people will take advantage of is the Affordable Connectivity Program, a Federal Communication Commission effort to assuage monthly costs of internet and phone services for low-income households.
For those who qualify, the enrollment process is two-fold and involves first filling out an application through the federal government. The second step involves contacting Consolidated Communications (the internet provider) to have the discount applied.
Cowan said the benefit could mean that monthly costs for the first year could be as low as $5 per household. For anyone needing assistance applying, Cowan and Brook Minner of the Brooksville Free Public Library are available (see sidebar for program and contact information).
Free computer literacy courses abound
The second item on Cowan’s virtual plate is, “How do we teach people how to use the internet?” For this, Cowan cites free courses available through the non-profit National Digital Equity Center.
NDEC offers more than 40 courses on how to use a computer, tablet, iPhone and other devices, as well as how to navigate different programs and platforms in a secure and effective manner. Based in Wiscasset, NDEC was founded in 2017 by Susan Corbett “with a mission to close the digital equity divide here in Maine.”
Corbett, former CEO of broadband provider Axiom, expounded in a recent phone interview: “Digital equity is when all of us can participate in our online society—through remote school, remote work, remote healthcare, etc. Making sure that everyone can participate in our digital economy really matters.” Courses through NDEC are both online and in-person.
Online courses through NDEC
NDEC’s online courses are in three categories:
“Aging Well” (for those aged 55+ and including courses on creating a safe online presence, identifying fake news, using health care apps, video conferencing with family/friends and downloading books, films and other entertainment).
“For Home and Education” (including using Google platforms, and information on virtual classrooms, internet safety and video streaming).
“For Work and Business” (including using Microsoft programs, Quickbooks, building a website and managing social media).
Said Cowan, “Something fun is that most of the instructors are part-time, people who have other jobs. I’ve taken courses from a guy who is a farmer up in Aroostook County….Once a person takes one of these classes, they’ll be hooked. If you don’t think you can learn anything about the internet, we’ll prove you wrong. The sky’s the limit.”
Corbett stressed the welcoming nature of the courses: “The goal is making sure you don’t overwhelm [people]; you meet them where they are. Our instructors do a fabulous job of making people feel comfortable. Almost always when someone takes a first class with us, they automatically sign up for three or four more classes.”
In-person courses through NDEC
As for in-person classes, “We have partnered with local organizations—like adult education facilities and local libraries—anyplace that could host a gathering of people. And then that host organization provides a facilitator and they have classes at that location,” said Corbett.
Courses are continually being added and, once registered with NDEC, Maine residents are able to sign up and take unlimited free classes on topics such as “Learning About Devices,” “iPhone Basics,” “Beyond Gmail” and “Internet Safety” (to name a few). Brooksville Library recently joined the network and courses will be added as facilitators become available.
Free devices through NDEC
The third component is the possibility of a free or discounted device for those in low-income households through the Maine Affordable Devices Program.
“The NDEC has grant money for equipment,” said Cowan. If you qualify, “the only requirement is that you take courses at NDEC and you will get a certificate stating that the computer is yours.” (See sidebar for more information.)
“We’re now going to have a much less expensive internet resource and people should have the opportunity to maximize their ability to take advantage of it,” said Cowan.
Internet cheat sheet
When you can sign up to get fiber internet at your house? Visit fidiumfiber.com/fiber-locations.
Information on discounted internet fees? Visit fcc.gov/ACP to see if you qualify. If so, go to ACPBenefit.org to fill out an online application or print a hard copy to send in via regular mail.
NDEC Courses? Visit digitalequitycenter.org and click on “Take a Class” to see what is available and “Enroll” to fill out application.
Information on the Maine Affordable Devices Program? Visit digitalequitycenter.org/request-device/ to complete form, email: [email protected], or call 207.259.5010
Help to get started with all things internet? Contact Doug Cowan at 207.837.1285 or [email protected] or Brook Minner at The Brooksville Library at 207.326.4560.