California Connects aims to put 61,000 people online

California Connects, a federally funded program designed to increase broadband access among underserved communities for improved access to resources like healthcare information, celebrated its official launch Wednesday at American River College in Sacramento.

Officials said the debut of the program marks the start of a multi-year effort to address California's digital divide and help increase the number of broadband Internet users throughout the state by more than 61,000 people.

[See also: Obama gives HIT the nod in State of the Union speech.]

California Connects will involve intensive training and outreach to expand Internet usage in communities that still have limited access, with an emphasis on the Central Valley, where there is still a high concentration of residents not using the Internet. The program aims to provide thousands of underserved Californians with online tools and training to enhance their lifelong learning ability, improve their economic and healthcare status and advance their general quality of life.

[See also: Studies: Health IT has big impact on rural and minority communities.]

California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla (11th District) joined California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott, Los Rios Community College District Chancellor Brice Harris, and Foundation for California Community Colleges President Paul Lanning to commemorate the launch of the program, made possible by a $10.9 million grant from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

"Broadband access will increase residents' access to services and resources in areas such as finances, healthcare, and social services, as well as provide an avenue for maintaining family and community ties online," said Lanning, noting the collaborative nature of California Connects as a key to its success. "It takes our combined effort to share in the restoration of California's achievement in higher education and make real strides across the digital divide to the place where we may all benefit from a well-educated populace."

The program will also involve 5,800 Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) students in training others on Web navigation. Many of these students, which represent 33 of California's Community Colleges, have already been supplied with laptops, Microsoft IT Academy training, and access to on-campus certification exams in exchange for teaching others in their respective communities how to navigate the Internet for essential tasks such as securing gainful employment, exploring higher education opportunities, accessing health and finance resources and engaging with social networks.

"California Connects provides the laptops and training to students who can then benefit others in the community with what they have learned," said Bonilla. "This program will help prepare so many students to make the jump into what the future holds."

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