By RAYMON TRONCOSO
Capitol News Illinois | Report For America
SPRINGFIELD — The state is soliciting computers and related equipment from individuals and companies as part of a new program announced Wednesday that will distribute refurbished devices to low-income households.
The Computer Equity Network is a collaboration between the state, the non-profit PCs for People, municipal governments and private businesses. The program is tied to the ongoing Connect Illinois initiative based out of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity that seeks to expand broadband access in the state.
Gov. JB Pritzker announced the program during his daily COVID-19 briefing on Wednesday.
“One of the largest gaps made even more significant in this pandemic is the digital divide,” Pritzker said.
“How can your child learn from home if you don’t have internet access? How can you shop for groceries safely online if you don’t have a computer? Accessing the digital world has become essential for students, for small business owners, for patient-doctor communications, for job applications. Really there’s no realm in which connecting online hasn’t become absolutely necessary in the modern era.”
DCEO estimates that out of 4.9 million Illinois households, more than 1.1 million currently lack computer access in their home.
According to DCEO Director Erin Guthrie, the Equity Network will host community hand-off events in all 102 Illinois counties to give away the upgraded devices to eligible families. The events will also feature on-site support from DCEO to provide digital literacy courses and options for accessing low-cost internet services.
What’s outside of the state’s hands, however, are the actual computers.
“We know that sourcing hardware is a limiting factor in this work, we are here today to call on Illinois companies to help us meet this challenge,” Guthrie said. “We are counting on you to maximize the impact of this initiative; your donation is essential as we work to close the gap.”
Pritzker suggested that “in the spirit of this holiday season,” Illinois companies, when upgrading equipment, can donate their old technology to the Equity Network, where PCs For People will upgrade it and give it to a family in need.
“It’s all hands on deck. Employers large and small, and likewise governments large and small,” Matt Schmit, the state’s Office of Broadband Director, said in an interview.
Colleges and other institutions of higher education that are upgrading equipment and can donate their older computers will be likely donors. Counties, cities or even small towns are also encouraged to partner with local businesses to recycle equipment during an update cycle.
“It can be computers by the hundreds or just a couple here and there. It all makes a difference,” he said.
Companies and individuals who give computers to the program are eligible for tax reductions under applicable regulations for property donations to charitable organizations.
Philanthropic entities are also encouraged to contribute. Current partners of the Equity Network include the Illinois COVID-19 Response Fund, the Jewish United Fund, the Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois, and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.
PCs for People CEO Casey Sorensen said the network has currently committed to providing 20,000 computers to low-income families during the non-profit’s first year operating in Illinois. Given the state’s number of households lacking computers is more than one million, significant investment in the program from public, private and philanthropic entities will be necessary to source enough computers to meet the demand.
“It’s easy for many to take for granted access to a computer and internet, but the pandemic has shown us millions of kids cannot access education,” Sorensen said. “We have received the warm welcome from local corporations, and now with the governor’s call to action, we’re optimistic about announcing many new partnerships in the near future, that help us sustain supply to reach Illinois families.”
Illinois residents who are eligible for free computers must be below 200 percent of the federal poverty line or enrolled in income-based government assistance programs such as free or reduced school lunch, Medicaid or SNAP.
Alongside the distribution events scheduled in every Illinois county, two statewide distribution centers, one in the Metro East area and one in Chicago, will be open for donations.
Households looking to receive computers, or companies looking to donate their older equipment, can visit Illinois.gov/ComputerEquityNetwork for more information.
Capitol News Illinois is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government and distributed to more than 400 newspapers statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.