Innovators in Digital Inclusion: PCs for People
Innovators in Digital Inclusion: PCs for People
Functional broadband access and adoption are essential for full participation in our society, for education, for public health, and for public safety. But nagging gaps in broadband adoption exist for too many U.S. communities. In Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives,(1) Dr. Colin Rhinesmith explored successful, local efforts to help low-income individuals and families overcome the barriers to broadband adoption. Dr. Rhinesmith finds that successful digital inclusion organizations focus on: 1) Providing low-cost broadband, 2) Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services, 3) Making low-cost computers available, and 4) Operating public access computing centers.
In this new series, the Benton Foundation and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) explore the origins, strategies, challenges and funding mechanisms for successful digital inclusion organizations. In this first article, we examine PCs for People, an organization which refurbishes recycled computers and provides affordable technology and broadband service to low-income individuals and families. PCs for People’s work is touching many lives, helping to improve educational and economic outcomes.
In 1998, Andy Elofson -- a social worker with Blue Earth County, Minnesota -- met with a young man who had been expelled from school for misusing school computers. In an effort to help, Andy gave him an old computer the county wasn't using anymore. Six months later, the young man was creating a positive future for himself and others by developing web pages for local businesses and churches.
That is when PCs for People began. Back then, PCs for People operated out of a small office in Mankato, Minnesota . Through the hard work of Andy and computer-savvy volunteers, the organization’s impact grew.
Ten years later, volunteer Casey Sorensen quit his job as an IT consultant to become PCs for People's first Executive Director. In 2008, PCs for People opened its St. Paul headquarters, received 501(c)(3) non-profit status, and became certified through the National Association of Information Destruction (NAID) for data sanitization. Founder Andy Elofson is still active as Chairman of the Board of Directors of PCs for People. [token node content-image-1-right]
The mission of PCs for People is to create new opportunities for individuals and families by providing affordable personal computers, computer repairs, Internet service, and technical support to people with limited technological experience due to social, physical, or economic circumstances. PCs for People addresses the issues around equipment cost, Internet service cost, and technical support.
PCs for People provides two of the four activities outlined in Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption report (see table below). The organization does not provide digital literacy training or public access computing facilities because PCs for People recognized that residents could access both services through the Twin Cities public library system. Instead, the organization has focused its efforts on providing individuals and families with access to low-cost broadband services and the low-cost devices needed to access the Internet at home. This approach allows individuals to build digital skills and access resources from home anytime they choose.
|Providing low-cost broadband||yes|
|Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services||no|
|Making low-cost computers available||yes|
|Operating public access computing centers||no|
Providing low-cost broadband
From their headquarters in St. Paul, Minnesota, PCs for People assists residents in gaining access to low-cost broadband service because the cost of broadband can be prohibitive, particularly for many individuals and families in low-income communities. In 2012, PCs for People partnered with nonprofit Internet providers Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon to offer low-cost, unlimited-data, mobile Internet access. Currently, the prepaid service is offered on Sprint’s 4G LTE network for $10/month. To keep cost of entry low, PCs for People and the Internet providers help subsidize the cost of the mobile hotspot device.
The organization was able to set up a prepaid plans for clients. Clients can come in to PCs for People, if it is located in their neighborhood or order online and get a $60 modem with 3, 6 or 12 months of service (starting at $10 per month). As one community member who paid for broadband service through PCs for People explained,
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Qualifying low-income customers could sign up for Internet service and get three months for free to offset the cost of the modem. As Casey Sorensen, PCs for People’s Executive Director, explained, “We found the three months for free is a critical component . . . they need to be able to have that three month period or even longer, if possible, to save up for the next time they need to pay for their Internet.” (Rhinesmith, 2016, p. 16)
PCs for People built a custom subscription management platform that includes processes for gathering proof of eligibility. This platform, along with their partnerships with Mobile Citizen and Mobile Beacon, allows PCs for People to provide low-cost Internet service to low-income individuals across the country.
Making low-cost computers available
PCs for People has partnerships with over 400 business and government agencies to recycle and refurbish retired electronics. Each refurbished computer is loaded with a Microsoft Windows operating system and Open Office, plus a standard browser which includes a pre-set homepage with an introduction to the web and reference links.
The refurbished computers are distributed for free or low cost to qualifying individuals living below 200% of the poverty level. The average recipient is a family of three living on $12,300 per year. Each month, PCs for People distributes an average of 1,000 computers. PCs for People also provides ongoing technical support for free and repair services for a $25 fee per repair.
Although community members are able to access the Internet on their phones, applying for jobs on a small screen can be nearly impossible. Traveling to public computing centers or libraries to use the computers can be frustrating because of the time limits on using those computers. Computers in the home provide clients with the necessary tools to be able to address their needs on their own time, while also improving their computer skills for the workplace and personal use. As one low-income single mother at PCs for People explained,
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A prepaid, low cost Internet program coupled with hardware access and ongoing support has resulted in PCs for People’s program growing to serve recipients in 45 States.
Having multiple revenue streams has been key to the success of PCs for People, allowing it to create a sustainable, impactful program.
PCs for People’s primary, and diversified, sources of income are:
- Fees for service including repairs. The average net revenue per refurbished computer is $37.
- Grants, including private and corporate philanthropy (such as corporate sponsorship of computer distributions at schools).
- Internet service provided for $10 per month (a price point that is designed to keep the service affordable). The organization nets a small amount on this service to help with administrative and staffing costs.
- Modest revenues from recycling commodities, computer recycling programs, inventory sales, and ads on the computers’ homepage.
PCs for People closely tracks costs and revenues. The organization has developed custom tools that exceed industry-standard methods for “wiping” used computers clear of data which helps encourage computer donations. Its primary costs include staff, facilities, utility overhead, transportation, warehousing, Internet devices, and subscription and proof of eligibility management systems.
PCs for People’s strategy is to: 1) procure high-quality, retired electronics from corporations, 2) leverage automation to efficiently refurbish computers, and 3) distribute equipment nationally at a lower cost than any other organization.
PCS for People’s outreach takes place primarily through recipients of PCs for People’s service. In its home state of Minnesota, PCs for People has grown principally by word of mouth, neighbor-to-neighbor.
PCs for People recognizes the value of being trusted and of partnering with trusted organizations. In addition to a core group of partners, there are other organizations promoting PCs for People’s service. Through its partnerships with organizations like the Minnesota Literacy Council and the St. Paul Public Library, its message has reached deep into the Twin Cities. Casey Sorensen shares,
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[token node content-image-3-left]One key differentiator in PCs for People’s model: PCs for People made a strategic decision to focus on support rather than be in the training business. Currently, PCs for People is the help desk for over 30,000 active computers across the US. If a customer gets stuck, or has a question, PCs for People is there to help. This has helped customers develop skills at their own pace and have the support needed to succeed.
PCs for People faces two major challenges in its work: meeting demand for its services and building trust in new communities the organization wishes to serve.
One of the biggest challenges for PCs for People has been meeting the community demand for refurbished computers, particularly laptops. When the program expanded to St. Paul in 2008, PCs for People’s inventory of 400 computers was exhausted in two months, resulting in a waiting list of 1,200 people. PCs for People knew six months on a waiting list was not an effective digital inclusion program. This is when the organization determined the need for a warehouse, trucks, NAID certification, and corporate recycling services. The increased capacity and professional data wiping process significantly increased computer donations. [token node content-image-2-right]
With its corporate, service-based approach, PCs for People has grown to distribute as many as 12,000 computers a year. It is an ongoing challenge to match the growing community need to the necessary labor to pick up, process, sort, and refurbish hundreds of thousands of pounds of electronics each year.
The second challenge is building trust when expanding services to new communities. PCs for People recently began providing services in Denver. Establishing trust and building relationships takes time so PCs for People prioritizes building partnerships. A Denver-based advisory board provides local oversight and guidance.
Understandably, trust is a big issue when program participants need to show proof of eligibility. To address this issue in Denver, confidential personal information is collected by local partner organizations. Anyone with a library card can check out a PCs for People/Mobile Beacon hotspot from the local library.(2)
When asked about evaluation, Casey Sorenson shared stories about the positive impacts of low-cost broadband on the lives of people in the Twin Cities.(3)
PCs for People also knows it is making a difference because of the evaluation tools it is using. Sorensen explained that his organization puts a homepage on every computer it distributes, which allows PCs for People to understand how people are using their low-cost broadband and low-cost computers. The homepages do not track what people do with their computers and broadband access. Rather, there is a survey on the homepage that asks users to provide their own feedback on how the low-cost broadband and low-cost computers have made a difference in their lives.
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For some, the impact of PCs for People is immeasurable.
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Sorensen explains, "When PCs for People started, we wanted to move the needle, we wanted to make a difference in Minnesota. Over the last eight years, 30 percent of the eligible population in the Twin Cities have received our services and we see that as success. We are now working to replicate that local success on a national scale."
[token node content-image-4-left]According to Sorensen, the next big challenge for PCs for People is “How do we craft a program to distribute one million computers?” The organization intends to expand by sharing its model so that others can replicate it, and by leveraging their existing systems and platforms for managing inventory and verifying eligibility. Casey Sorensen states “Partnership and collaboration are the watchwords for organizations that want to build digital equity. Sharing processes and systems will create economies of scale at the community level and the national level.”
By providing low-cost broadband and making low-cost computers available, PCs for People has bridged the digital divide for thousands of people in Minnesota and around the U.S. It’s partnerships with over 400 business and government agencies along with its custom subscription management platform and diversified income provides a strategic organizational model for digital inclusion.
- In 2016, PCs for People created a new community initiative to distribute computers and Mobile Beacon Internet through 14 community-based organizations, including the Denver Housing Authority and the federal ConnectHome project.
- Many of these stories are available on PCs for People’s website http://pcsforpeople.org/about-us/recipient-stories.
- Ellis, Jonathan. Computer giveaway to help the poor. Agnus Leader (September 23, 2015) http://www.argusleader.com/story/news/2015/09/23/computer-giveaway-help-poor/72707390/
Angela Siefer is the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Angela envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997, Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. This work led Angela to co-found the National Digital Inclusion Alli- ance, a unified national voice for local technology training, home broadband access, and public broadband access programs. A profile of her written work is at angelasiefer.com.
Innovators in Digital Inclusion series