Free Geek wins $2 million grant to boost technology access in east Portland

Free Geek

Free Geek's office and workshop in Southeast Portland.Mike Rogoway/The Oregonian

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Portland technology nonprofit Free Geek has landed a $2 million grant from Portland’s cable regulatory commission, a big one-time infusion that will boost the tech organization’s outreach mission in the Portland area.

The money comes from a fund created years ago from TV franchise fees paid by cable companies. They’re intended to pay for high-speed internet to public institutions, including libraries, fire stations and the like.

It turned out there was little need for money to pay for those hookups, and $4 million from a prior franchise agreement with Comcast has sat unused in the cable TV company’s accounts since 2011.

The Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission and Comcast have agreed to repurpose the money to boost digital access, beginning with the Free Geek grant announced Thursday.

“It’s exciting,” said Juan Muro, Free Geek’s executive director. “It just means we’re going to be able to do more of the work that we do already.”

Free Geek became nationally known in the early 2000s for rehabilitating old computers and giving them away to people who volunteered to help with the organization’s work, teaching them technology skills in the process.

Free Geek’s focus has expanded in recent years to including digital education, Muro said, teaching more people how to use computers and directing them to resources to help them afford devices and pay for internet access.

“We are working primarily in east (Multnomah County) because we see a lot of gaps,” Muro said.

Free Geek works through community organizations to tell people about its own services or direct them to other programs, like the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which offers $30 discounts on internet service for people who qualify for other forms of government assistance.

Some disadvantaged communities are skeptical of such offers, Muro said, because they don’t trust people when they say they’re giving something away. So Free Geek is partnering with established community organizations serving Portland Latinos, for example, or women in technology, to get the word out.

“We show up there with services, a community center, in partnership with somebody they already know and trust,” Muro said.

Free Geek will receive the grant over two years, providing a substantial boost to its $4 million annual budget. Muro said the organization recognizes it’s a one-time infusion but hopes the money will help raise the profile of its work to boost digital equity and attract more community partners to the effort.

“This puts the work that we do on the map for others to see and hopefully join our fight to bridge the digital divide,” Muro said. “We’ll do it for a year, year and a half, and then go back to our regular programming.”

The next step is to determine what to do with the remaining $2 million in franchise money from 2011. Although the funding remains with Comcast, Portland cable regulators maintain oversight and must approve any use of the money.

“We’ve been in discussion with Comcast over the past several years about ways we could be more responsive to our community,” said Rebecca Gibbons, the cable commission’s manager. She said the grant to Free Geek represents an opportunity to make technology more accessible.

“It’s really important that you have local, community-based organizations that are invested in the community doing that kind of work,” Gibbons said.

Comcast and the cable commission have agreed to hire a contractor to evaluate the impact of Free Geek’s program and use that information to help determine how to use the last $2 million from the old franchise fund. Gibbons said it could go to other digital inclusion programs or might pay for infrastructure upgrades to make high-speed connections more accessible.

“We are open,” she said. “I think those are all on the table.”

-- Mike Rogoway | | 503-294-7699

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