Habitat pilots national tech project

By Todd Cohen

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — A two-year-old effort to plug Habitat families in the Twin Cities into the digital economy has won the backing of AOL Time Warner, which aims to test the project for two more years and then expand it to every new Habitat home in the United States.

“It’s inexpensive to build a smart home and help families acquire the means to take themselves to another level in the economy and give children the tools to perform at a higher level,” says B. Keith Fulton, vice president of the New York-based AOL Time Warner Foundation.

On June 12, Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County announced a $1 million, two-year pilot project – back by AOL Time Warner and Dell Computer Corp. – to expand and test a modest technology project it launched in 2000 to equip its homes with computers, software, training and Internet access.

Habitat launched that project after it was approached by HATCH, a Winston-Salem firm that develops computer centers for early-childhood programs.

Believing computers simply are appliances for which homeowners need training, Rich Griffen, CEO of HATCH, offered two years ago to donate computers, software and training for all new Habitat homes in Forsyth County.

Habitat, in turn, agreed to secure free Internet access, now provided by AOL Time Warner.

So far, the initiative has provided tech access to families living in 32 homes.

To test the benefits of giving low-income families access to technology and the Internet, AOL Time Warner and Dell now will join HATCH in expanding its initial effort to all 207 homes that Forsyth’s Habitat will have built by the end of 2005.

In the pilot Digital Bridge Initiative through 2005, HATCH will donate computers, software, printers and other equipment and support to 75 more Habitat families in Winston-Salem, while Dell will donate computers to the 100 Habitat homes built before 2000.

And AOL Time Warner will give all 207 Habitat homes Internet access, worth $300,000, and will contribute another $125,000 for the cost of Wake Forest’s evaluation, training manuals for families, technical-assistance for homeowners and a temporary Digital Bridge administrator.

Depending on an evaluation by Wake Forest University, AOL Time Warner tentatively plans to expand the initiative starting in 2005 to Habitat’s more than 1,600 affiliates in the United States, plugging in 5,000 new Habitat homes a year.

A nonprofit would be created to give owners of new Habitat homes the option of getting technology, Internet access, training and upgrades – with the costs built into their 20-year, zero-interest mortgages.

In the information age, says Sonja Murray, Habitat’s director of development, affordable housing and access to technology both are critical.

“The home levels the playing field for the parent,” she says, “and the computer levels the playing field for the children.”

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