Chapter 6: Affordable devices

PCs for People

A major component of digital disconnection for U.S. households is still the lack of a computing device in the home. According to the Table B28003, available in the 2013-2017 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates53, in 2017 about 15 million American households—one out of eight—did not own home computers of any kind, including tablets or smartphones. The percentage of homes without any kind of computing devices was typically 20%-25% for the cities identified by NDIA as 2017’s “Worst Connected Cities,”54 like Miami, Cleveland and Detroit.

With new Chromebooks and larger-screen tablets available for less than $200, it’s tempting to think that “everyone can afford” some kind of computer. But the reality is that even $200 is too much for many poor families and individuals living on low fixed incomes. That’s why helping people to find very affordable home computers is a key digital inclusion goal in many communities.

In general, there are two “cheap to free” approaches for digital inclusion programs across the country. By far the most common is refurbished used computer systems, which organizations either acquire and refurbish themselves or arrange for their clients to get from partner refurbishers. The other, less common approach is mass purchase of new devices at bargain prices.

Do-it-yourself PC refurbishing

It is common for small-scale community digital inclusion programs to receive donations of a few dozen, or perhaps a few hundred, used computer systems from local businesses or institutions. Typically these donations will come with already-cleared hard drives (or with the hard drives removed), and often without monitors. An organization with a hardware-savvy staff or volunteers and minor financial resources can easily purchase some missing parts online and load some kind of operating system to make these donated computers useful for people who need them.

Small-scale DIY refurbishing is often a great volunteer opportunity and lends itself to basic hardware training (e.g., for local high school students). But it’s hard to sustain as a reliable source of computers because most corporate and institutional IT managers now require their “refreshed” systems to go to professional recyclers that can a) guarantee total hard drive wipes, b) pick up by truck at the loading dock, and c) pay for the machines or offer to split revenue from those that are refurbished and re-sold.

Nevertheless, small community do-it-yourself refurbishing efforts sometimes expand to become more ambitious and strategic, without necessarily turning themselves into fully professional or commercial enterprises. This might be linked to another agenda—for example, a hardware skills training program for high school students that attracts both a free workforce (the students) and a special reason for companies or institutions to donate computers.

Connecting for Good55, based in Kansas City, is a wraparound digital inclusion provider offering digital literacy training, internet access and refurbished computers for its clientele. As one component of the organization’s programming is refurbishing, Connecting for Good is an example of how organizations can introduce a device-refurbishing program at a small to intermediate scale. Also, as a registered Microsoft Refurbisher, the organization cleans and upgrades donated equipment through a model that offers STEM job training for computer-refurbishing volunteers and interns before the devices are sold to those in need at a significantly discounted rate for computer equipment.

Greater Charlotte’s E2D (“Eliminate the Digital Divide”)56 was founded in October 2012 when 12-year-old Franny Millen asked her parents two questions:

  1. How can all kids in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District do their homework and projects successfully if some of their families are too poor to own digital technology?
  2. What are we going to do about it? To date, E2D has provided about 8,500 laptops to families in their region, doubling within about a year. They are a licensed Microsoft refurbisher, allowing them discounted access to Windows and Office, which are typically installed on all of their computers. At their Distribution Days (D-Days) held twice a month at a local high school, their one-on-one training often goes beyond getting to the student portal, touching on everything from Google Translate to setting up online banking with the users, all depending on need and time available. To ensure they serve as many families as possible, E2D has provided digital literacy training in Spanish and plans to initiate a new, much more expanded English as a Second Language (ESL) digital literacy training program in 2019. They also connect families with low-cost broadband options with a special focus on serving homeless and otherwise displaced students with hotspots that can move around with them.

Jumping into computer refurbishing is not for the faint of heart. If you decide to do so, start with Partners Bridging the Digital Divide’s Resources for Refurbishers. And if it looks daunting, we suggest reaching out to existing refurbishers for advice or partnership.57

Working with established non-profit refurbishers

A number of communities across the U.S. have one or more fully professional, nonprofit computer-refurbishing organizations. These organizations are big enough to compete for large-scale supplies of out-of-service hardware from corporate and institutional sources but exist for the purpose of getting refurbished machines into the hands of schools, international non-governmental organizations and low-income households.

Many (but not all) are members of the Alliance for Technology Refurbishing and Reuse (AFTRR)58, a project of the National Cristina Foundation.59 AFTRR and many of their members are NDIA affiliates and are happy to partner with local digital inclusion programs to help their participants get low-cost or even free home computers with warranty protection and other support. If you’re considering the creation of a digital inclusion program for your community with a focus on refurbishing computers for low-income households, we strongly urge you to consult with existing nonprofit refurbishers about your plans.

The number of organizations offering low-cost refurbished equipment to the public for purchase or donation is growing by the year in an effort to meet the ongoing need for access to affordable digital devices that match the processing needs for modern technological software. The availability of devices is not limited to desktop or laptop computers as many groups also provide refurbished cell phones, handheld tablets, computer accessories. Many lead organizations in the refurbishing industry were found to align in six key areas of service delivery.

  1. Provide precise criteria for the types of devices that eligible and ineligible for donation.
  2. Obtain certification in technology recycling and the destruction of information housed on donated equipment.
  3. Stipulate clear eligibility guidelines (based on poverty level or participation in certain government income-support programs) for who is eligible to purchase discounted equipment.
  4. Highlight tax deductible opportunities for individuals and organizations donating equipment.
  5. Offer multifaceted approaches for how and where devices can be donated and purchased (e.g., online, in-person or at community events).
  6. Design refurbishing programs that support digital literacy for employment by training device refurbishers from the local community.

Examples - Three of the largest and most established non-profit refurbishing organizations

PC for People

“Technology for individuals and non-profits. E-waste recycling for businesses.”

PCs for People60 is a national computer refurbisher based in Boulder, Colo., that offers devices ranging from $65 for a desktop computer to $265 for laptops. Over the last two decades, PCs for People has refurbished more than 70,000 computers and recycled millions of pounds of electronics, therefore offering affordable services to increase digital equity while also protecting the environment by reducing the rate of improper technology waste disposal. The organization supports refurbishing services through staff and a robust group of volunteers that include high school students and general members of the community.

Kramden Institute

“Providing technology tools and training to bridge the digital divide.”

The Kramden Institute61 launched in 2003 and provides refurbishing services from its headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. Kramden Institute refurbished 3,500 donated computers in 2017 and sells discounted devices through its online Ebay store and in-person at their offices or device drives hosted in the community. Unique to Kramden Institute, the organization partners with the telecommunication company CenturyLink to accept donations at their offices across the state of North Carolina.

Human-I-T

“Shrinking the digital divide, one piece of technology at a time.”

Human-I-T62 is a newer, well-known device refurbisher making significant strides in the community to close digital device divides. Since its inception in 2003, Human-I-T has been supported by hundreds of volunteers who refurbished approximately 1,400 computers in 2017. The organization clearly defines eligibility qualifications for purchase. They explicitly include seniors, veterans and individuals with disabilities, known groups experiencing higher rates of digital inequity. Additionally, the organization provides technical support for clients who purchase a device through their organization.

Mass purchase of new hardware

When a budget allows, some digital inclusion programs opt to purchase hardware new as a bulk purchase, which keeps the price within their range. This strategy entails some ongoing financial support, so new organizations that want to adopt it need to carefully consider the fundraising requirements.

Tech Goes Home63, a digital inclusion organization working with low-income families in the Boston area since 2005, has a different approach to providing computers for its participants. It purchases Chromebooks in large numbers at wholesale prices and resells them to graduating families for $50. This approach offers the households a brand-new device with a new-machine warranty (not serviced by Tech Goes Home).


References

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“2013-2017 ACS 5-year Estimates,” American Community Survey, United States Census Bureau, updated November 28, 2018, https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/acs/technical-documentation/table-and-geography-changes/2017/5-year.html
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54]
“Worst-connected Cities 2017,” NDIA, accessed February 4, 2019, https://www.digitalinclusion.org/worst-connected-cities-2017/
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“Computer Refurbishing,” Connecting for Good, accessed February 25, 2019, http://www.connectingforgood.org/programs/refurbishing-program
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E2D, accessed February 25, 2019, https://www.e-2-d.org/
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“Resources for Refurbishers,” Partners Bridging the Digital Divide, accessed February 27, 2019, https://pbdd.org/resources-refurbishers/
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Alliance for Technology Refurbishing & Reuse, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.aftrr.org/
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National Cristina Foundation, accessed February 27, 2019, https://www.cristina.org/
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PCs for People, accessed February 22, 2019, https://pcsforpeople.org
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Kramden Institute, accessed February 22, 2019, https://kramden.org
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Human I-T, accessed February 22, 2019, https://www.human-i-t.org
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Tech Goes Home, accessed February 22, 2019, https://www.techgoeshome.org/
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