Students are increasingly accessing the Internet for school-related projects using hotspots in local coffeehouses or libraries because of a lack of broadband in many neighborhoods. (Photo by Shantella Y. Sherman

For millions of schoolchildren across the country, the end of the school day means the end of high-speed, broadband Internet access. Winter and summer breaks, additionally, produce a virtual “blackout” of Internet service.

This separation of resources creates what President Barack Obama calls a “homework gap,” wherein young people, especially those living in subsidized housing, are limited in their ability to be effective students.

Obama, along with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro recently announced, ConnectHome, an initiative to extend affordable broadband access to families living in HUD-assisted housing, as a remedy for the homework gap. While Obama’s previous efforts with ConnectEd secured broadband in 98 percent of the nation’s public schools, members of his administration said there was a need for additional services.

“America must remain the undisputed land of opportunity in a rapidly changing 21st century. When more than 90 percent of college applications are online and 80 percent of job applications are online, it becomes clear how important access is,” Castro said during a White House press call on July 15. “We believe that the same level of access should follow kids from the school to their homes.”

Castro expects ConnectHome to impact more than 275,000 low-income households – offering broadband access, technical training, digital literacy programs, and devices for residents in assisted housing units in 27 cities across the country, including D.C. and Baltimore, and the Choctaw tribal nation.

Jeff Zients, White House National Economic Council director, said in a teleconference on July 15, that local housing authorities for each of the selected cities will work with ConnectHome to officially launch the initiative in their areas.  The D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) has not set an official launch date.

He also said, that while nearly two-thirds of households in the lowest-income quintile own a computer, less than half have a home Internet subscription. “While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends,” Zients said.  “This “homework gap” runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education.  This means making Internet access a priority.”

ConnectHome works with HUD and several corporations, including Google Fiber, which will offer free home Internet service to residents in select public housing properties and Best Buy, which is slated to provide D.C. students residing in HUD properties with free afterschool technical training. Additionally, Castro announced new measures requiring HUD-funded new residential construction and substantial rehabilitation projects to support broadband Internet connectivity.

“My hope is that there will be great results.  Right now this is a demonstration project whose success will be measured by how many who did not have access, now have access,” Castro said.  “A longitudinal study on what kinds of impacts ConnectHome had on student learning or education is also coming.  We are finding and addressing a need, while making a study of filling those voids.”

Private industries, local leaders, and nonprofits have so far committed to spending $70 million over the next several years on ConnectHome.  The federal government, according to Castro, will not contribute more than $50,000 allocated by the Department of Agriculture for broadband-related equipment to the Choctaw tribal nation.