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On federal and state levels, plans are underway to enhance internet access

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

On the federal and state levels, plans are underway to enhance internet access. Earlier this month, the Biden administration laid out a program to reduce costs for low-income Americans, and states such as Oregon are making unprecedented investments in broadband with money from the infrastructure bill. Katia Riddle reports from Portland.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: When he immigrated to the United States, Fidel Ferrer had to learn to speak both English and the language of technology.

FIDEL FERRER: Like, when people would tell me internet, I would be like, what is that?

RIDDLE: Ferrer was a young adult when he found his way to the United States from Cuba 11 years ago.

FERRER: I didn't grow up with technology. I didn't grow up with a cell phone. I didn't grow up with a computer. So it was kind of, like, a really big shock.

RIDDLE: One thing Ferrer did have was ambition. But even to take a placement test at a community college, he needed to navigate a computer.

FERRER: I remember times when I was almost about, like, you know, to give up.

RIDDLE: Like, this is too hard.

FERRER: It's too hard. And it's been really hard. It's been really hard.

RIDDLE: Getting a job, participating in school, accessing government services - like unemployment benefits or health care subsidies - all require broadband access. Census data shows 15% of American households don't have it. That is why the Biden administration is making money available to states. It's not just for broadband, but to help people use the computers connected to it.

ANGELA SIEFER: This money is really awesome, and it's really going to make a huge dent, but if we don't figure out how to change our systems...

RIDDLE: Angela Siefer is with a group called National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

SIEFER: You know, making sure that there's always tech support, making sure that there's always some place to go to get a lower-cost device, making sure we always have a subsidy for broadband service - all of those things have to still happen, and we're not quite there yet.

SALEH KHALIL: If any problem, I call this number?

MARIA LARA: No, I will give you instructions.

RIDDLE: Maria Lara is a digital navigator at a nonprofit in Portland called Free Geek. On this day, she's helping Saleh Khalil (ph) with a computer for his son's schoolwork. Free Geek rehabs computers and then gives them to people who need them. They also help these recipients overcome obstacles to use.

LARA: I will show you where is the telephone number.

RIDDLE: Some of the infrastructure money will go specifically to community groups like this one.

KHALIL: I have another son.

LARA: Uh huh.

KHALIL: He did application, but I don't know what...

RIDDLE: It's not unusual for digital navigators to spend 3 hours with one person, helping them with their tech needs. The job Oregon is now facing is how to get these kinds of services to as many as 600,000 people across the state.

DANIEL HOLBROOK: It's a huge task.

RIDDLE: Daniel Holbrook is with the Oregon Broadband Office. Oregon is scheduled to receive at least $100 million to fortify broadband infrastructure.

HOLBROOK: Ultimately, we're trying to meet communities where they're at, and, you know, some of them are on different parts of their journey.

RIDDLE: Not every community has an organization like Free Geek in Portland. In some rural places, the public library or a school serves as the primary broadband access point. Fidel Ferrer received his first computer from Free Geek over a decade ago. He went to college. Now, he runs his own organization that helps underserved kids learn about technology.

FERRER: It's been an amazing experience to watch our kids from our community changing their minds around what they can do and what is actually possible.

RIDDLE: Ferrer had planned to try to help kids in Cuba, where he grew up, after he finished college. Then, he realized there were plenty of kids in the U.S. who he says need just as much help. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland, Oregon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.