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Habitat, AOL wire families

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By Todd Cohen

Habitat for Humanity and AOL Time Warner aim to plug low-income homeowners into the digital economy.

Building on an initiative launched in 2000 in Winston-Salem, N.C., AOL Time Warner and other partners are investing $1 million over two years in a pilot project to equip homes built by Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County with computers, software, training and Internet access.

Tentative plans then call for national expansion of the pilot, which will be evaluated by researchers at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.

Starting in 2005, a new nonprofit would give owners of every new Habitat home in the United States the option to get technology, Web access, training and upgrades – with the costs built into their 20-year, zero-interest mortgages.

“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 in Dulles, Va., for the New York-based AOL Time Warner Foundation.

The pilot program and expansion plans are modeled on an initiative launched in 2000 by HATCH, a Winston-Salem firm that builds computer centers for early-childhood programs such as day-care centers and Head Start groups.

Believing that computers simply are appliances for which homeowners need training, HATCH CEO Rich Griffen two years ago proposed donating computers, software and training for all new Habitat homes in Winston-Salem.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good to put technology in a building unless people understand how to use it,” says Griffen, whose firm assembles computers for use by youngsters ages two to four, and also trains adults to help children use the technology.

Building on its experience installing software specially selected for early-childhood programs, the firm customizes software and Web portals for Habitat homes based on the needs and interests of the individual children and adults who will use the computers.

“It’s holistic in terms of understanding the needs of Habitat homeowners and the links that relate to all aspects of their life,” says Ginny Norton, HATCH’s executive vice president for customer relations. “It’s our goal to help the at-risk families in our community bridge the digital divide that is so prevalent in the United States.”

The portal on a Habitat homeowner’s computer, for example, feature links to Web sites on topics ranging from local schools and news to jobs, finance, health, religion and entertainment.

The portal also includes a link to The Beehive, a Web site – hosted by AOL Time Warner – that was developed by One Economy Corp., a national nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that helps provide residents of public housing with access to technology and Web resources.

As part of the initial effort launched two years ago, Habitat 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 Computer Corp. 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 project, known as the Digital Bridge Initiative, HATCH will provide computers, software, printers and other equipment and support to 75 more Habitat families in Winston-Salem, while Dell will provide computers to the 100 Habitat homes built there before 2000.

And through 2005, AOL Time Warner will give all 207 Habitat homes Internet access, worth $300,000, and will contribute another $125,000 for Wake Forest’s evaluation, training manuals for families, technical assistance for homeowners and a temporary Digital Bridge administrator.

Habitat, working with HATCH, will oversee the pilot project and also will continue the program in new homes it builds in the future.

Based on Wake Forest’s evaluation of the two-year pilot program, AOL Time Warner tentatively plans to expand the initiative starting in 2005 to Habitat’s more than 1,600 affiliates in the U.S., plugging in 5,000 new Habitat homes a year.

In addition to Internet access, each homeowner would get software upgrades and a new computer every three years.

“We’re hoping to explore ways to creatively finance it so that all the partners involved can stay with the model and turn it into a real functional, sustainable national program,” says Fulton of the AOL Time Warner Foundation.

Sonja Murray, director of development at Habitat in Winston-Salem, says a key to sustaining the initiative would be to create an income stream for technology companies by helping homeowners understand the value of technology.

The pilot will be important, Fulton says, “because it lays the groundwork for testing the assumption that access at home will bring benefits to low-income families that go beyond what they get from having only access at school or community centers or libraries that have limited hours. At home, your access is always on.”

The goal, he says, is to find ways to help Habitat develop “smarter housing” and “make connectivity an essential part of investing in these communities and families.”

Murray, who is directing the Digital Bridge initiative and plans for its expansion, says affordable housing and access to technology both are critical in the information age.

“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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