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UMass Project in Lowell to Increase Internet Use

By From the Boston Globe

By Katheleen Conti
As a member of United Teen Equality Center in Lowell, Rachel Field said she has been able to unleash her creative vision by way of free access to the organization’s video cameras and computers ߞ; equipment she does not have at home.

Through UTEC, the 17-year-old from Tyngsborough has been filming and editing video showcasing young people “in a more positive light,’’ which she soon plans to post online. With slightly outdated equipment, the editing process can be a bit slow, but Field said she is excited the center is slated to get new computers with the help of federal stimulus funds recently awarded to UMass Lowell.

“I just think that because of places like this, kids find an outlet and a way to kind of really express themselves in a way they never really could,’’ said Field on a recent afternoon at UTEC, which was packed with young people engaged in various activities from computer work to foosball.

For many local teens, once they leave school, this is the only place where they’ll have online access for the rest of the day. “A friend of mine, they have a computer, but they can’t put Internet on it, so there’s no point in really having the computer.’’

Field touched upon what is known as the digital divide ߞ; the gap between those who have access to technology and online content, and those who have limited or no access at all.

A report released last month by the Federal Communications Commission indicates that 78 percent of adults in the United States are Internet users and that 65 percent have home broadband access. Of those without broadband access, many are elderly and low-income minority populations, according to the findings.

This is why Lowell, where about 11 percent of residents are age 65 and older and there is a sizeable ethnic population, is slated to benefit from a $780,000 federal stimulus grant awarded to the University of Massachusetts in Lowell to start a broadband expansion project. With matching funds from the university, the grant totals approximately $1 million for its three-year span.

Carol C. McDonough, a professor of economics at UMass Lowell and principal investigator for the project, said she hopes that by the time the first mandated quarterly report is due to the government in April, all 11 computer centers to be created or expanded will be up and running.

“We’re working specifically with disadvantaged youth groups, and the socially and economically disadvantaged,’’ McDonough said. “They’re the ones who’ve been proven not to have access to the Internet.’’

Receiving expanded or new computer centers will be UTEC; the Lowell Boys and Girls Club; Community Teamwork Inc.; Elder Services of the Merrimack Valley centers in Billerica, Amesbury and Lawrence; and three Lowell Housing Authority senior housing apartment buildings, which will also become the city’s first municipal Wi-Fi hotspot. Training, management, and support of these centers will be provided through Lowell Telecommunications Corp., NKC Systems of Dracut, UMass Lowell students, and a project manager to be hired with grant funds.

Robert Forrant, professor of regional economic and social development at UMass Lowell, said the project won’t stop once the computer centers are completed.

“We will be building within the organizations to provide more computers, as well as to provide more access to high-speed Internet, training programs for young people, as well as to try to encourage seniors to use high-speed Internet,’’ Forrant said. “When people log on to this, they’ll see a common home page with information. The idea is to develop the course of the content in a variety of languages that are spoken in the city. It’s democratizing access to the technology.’’

The welcome page could include medical information for seniors or employment information for low-income residents and teens, among other things, Forrant said.

Gregg Croteau, UTEC’s executive director, said the center sees about 150 young people a day and only has six working computers. While he is looking forward to the new equipment, Croteau said, the grant will also fund a program to help high school dropouts carve out a career in information technology by training them in multimedia and to become technology assistants at some of the other grant-funded computer labs in the city.

Meanwhile, for Eleanor Pye, executive director of Lowell Telecommunications Corp., the stimulus grant represents “the muscle’’ to finally develop a citywide Wi-Fi network, which “we can’t do without a good deal of funding and support.’’ The nonprofit organization runs the city’s community access television station, teaches residents how to do programming, and has a website that includes live streaming of city meetings, Pye said. “Providing access to the Internet just seems like a nice progression to do,’’ she said.

Municipal Wi-Fi, which only a few communities offer, should be the next frontier in Lowell, Forrant said. Either with the stimulus funding or with future new grants, Forrant said he hopes a partnership can be formed with existing broadband providers “to make the entire downtown Lowell a hotspot.’’

“It sort of makes the city much more in the 21st century,’’ Forrant said, adding it would appeal to residents, visitors, and potential business owners. “You’re creating a much more modern infrastructure. I liken it to when cities were putting in poles for phone lines to get in line with the 20th century.’'