COLUMBIA — Columbia's public housing residents aren't just on the lower end of the wealth gap. Phil Steinhaus thinks they suffer from a digital divide, too.
"When you look at people in poverty, there's a huge technology gap," Steinhaus, the chief executive officer of the Columbia Housing Authority, said.
The housing authority is hoping to close that gap by taking steps to provide wireless Internet service to residents of Paquin Tower and its Bear Creek neighborhood.
Steinhaus noted that nowadays, people use the Internet for things such as looking up movie times and hunting for jobs. And most jobs require at least a minimum level of computer literacy.
The authority hopes to sign agreements with Full Stream LLC and Bluebird Media Network that would lead to wireless Internet service in the computer lab and lobby of Paquin Tower and to apartments in the Bear Creek neighborhood in north Columbia.
Under the resolution regarding Full Stream, the company would lease space on the roof of Paquin Tower to install an antenna for transmitting wireless signals. It would pay a monthly $1,500 fee to the housing authority, adjusted yearly for inflation. Full Stream's lease would be for five years.
The Bluebird agreement would allow the company to build a 12-by-28-foot brick building at the Bear Creek site that would serve as a "communications facility." The structure would be surrounded by a 70-by-50-foot chain-link fence.
The initial lease to Bluebird Media Network would be for 10 years at a cost of $1,100 per month. It would automatically renew every five years thereafter, but rent would rise by 15 percent with each renewal.
Once the Bluebird facility is built, Steinhaus said, the agency hopes to negotiate with Bluebird to provide wireless Internet to Bear Creek residents.
Before the housing authority can move forward, though, it must get approval from the U.S. Housing and Development Office (HUD) to lease its property.
Housing authority commissioners voted Monday to allow Steinhaus to file an application with HUD to approve the deals with Full Stream and Bluebird. Steinhaus said he expects to hear back from HUD in 30 to 60 days. He doesn't anticipate any problems.
Commission Vice Chairwoman Genie Rogers said she thought both agreements would be good for public housing residents.
Steinhaus said he hopes to establish service at Paquin Tower soon after hearing from HUD and after Full Stream has a chance to install its equipment. He said about 20 percent of Paquin Tower residents pay for their own wireless Internet access now.
"It's like everybody (with Internet access) has the whole library at their house," Steinhaus said. But people without easy Internet access have to go to the public library to look something up.
The Paquin Tower Resident Association approved the Full Stream application unanimously at its Nov. 28 meeting. And Bear Creek residents who responded to a recent survey about potential service there supported it.