PHILADELPHIA -- The odd-looking antenna that receives high-speed Internet service is taped smack in the middle of a window in the home of the Cox family.
It communicates with another antenna atop a building nearby, which in turn is connected to a system of fiber-optic cables that snake alongside telephone lines through the neighborhood streets.
Taah Cox, 9, works at the computer as her mother, Maya Cox, and grandmother, Theodora Cox, look on. Theodora Cox helped her granddaughter embrace computers and the Internet.
(Barbara L. Johnston For The Washington Post)
But this is not some fancy suburban subdivision with all the latest gadgetry. It is one of Philadelphia's most impoverished neighborhoods, and the network is part of an assault on the gap in Internet use between the comfortable and the poor.
Just as a business might have one Internet connection that is shared by employees, similar networks can be set up in individual buildings, housing developments or neighborhoods. Rather than waiting to scrape together the money for separate broadband accounts, residents can tap into these shared networks for less than $15 a month, much less than the cost of individual high-speed accounts.
As the nation's transformation to a wired society has accelerated, many policymakers have shelved fears of a gulf between Internet haves and have-nots. Internet use at all income levels has gone up. The government program known as E-rate helped subsidize the wiring of schools and public libraries, while recent government efforts have focused on proving broadband to rural areas.
Yet a significant digital divide based on income persists, largely affecting the urban poor.
In 2002, more than 75 percent of U.S. households with incomes of more than $50,000 had Internet access, but the share was 38 percent for those with household incomes of less than $30,000, according to a survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.
There are no comparable figures for high-speed Internet access, which typically costs $30 to $50 per month and has been embraced by an estimated 30 percent of Internet users. With such prices, some researchers worry that it will be even harder for the poor to catch up.
"The real issue was trying to get access in the home where it's convenient," said Rey Ramsey, chief executive of the nonprofit One Economy Corp., which pioneered the approach being used in Philadelphia and several other cities. "If the library or learning center closes at 6 and you don't get off work until 8, that's not real access."
Home use is especially vital, researchers say, because unlike other technologies, such as television sets, Internet use requires computer skills and practice to take full advantage of its power to help children learn and their parents get services and do business more efficiently.