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.
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.
Most government policy "seems to assume that with the Internet, all you need to do is connect people up," said Eszter Hargittai, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. "There has to be an emphasis on skill."
Broadband brings advantages in addition to all the new entertainment applications, Ramsey argues. His long-term vision is to use the Internet to revolutionize a social and educational services, such as homework assistance and helping find jobs, insurance and health care, much of which would require faster connections for video and interactivity.
"Maybe he social worker's job changes a little bit," he said. "Maybe they become an information broker . . . on child care, housing and other services. We want people to be online, not in line."
With its goal of bringing high-speed access and training to the more than 10 million people who live in government-subsidized low-income housing, and the program's reliance on the private sector, the effort has attracted powerful backers in Washington from both parties.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) are honorary co-chairmen. Commerce Undersecretary Phillip J. Bond has urged state governors to require affordable-housing building contracts to include high-speed Internet services.
The program brings together builders, landlords, telecommunications companies, computer makers and social service agencies. It is operating in cities including Chicago, Miami, San Jose and Portland, Ore., targeting specifically the roughly 200,000 new low-income housing units built every year, which makes installing the networks significantly cheaper.
The system is a win for Internet providers, who get some fees from where they would otherwise probably have had none. Builders see broadband as adding value to their real estate and reducing tenant turnover. Companies donate the networking equipment and computers, and some landlords include the broadband fee in the rent.
Local nonprofit partners tailor the program to the needs of the their communities and help manage the networks.
By the end of this year, One Economy estimates that 5,000 households will be connected, and the group is negotiating with Verizon Corp. for a major expansion of the project.
Under the Philadelphia program, the Cox family -- three generations of women sharing a rowhouse -- gets high-speed Internet access for $10 a month. It has changed their world.
Taah (pronounced Tay-uh) was an unfocused third-grader whose father is in jail. Her mother, Maya, who was 13 when she gave birth to Taah, was told at the time that she probably needed a kidney transplant. Theodora Cox, at 64, faced the added uncertainty of retirement.
Eight months ago, Theodora Cox saw a flier advertising the One Economy program: enroll in an eight-week training course and then have the opportunity to buy a computer for $120 and get broadband for $10 a month. Despite a long-standing fear of computers, the retired social worker dived in.
Now Taah "is the technology director in her class," a proud Theodora Cox said. She bickers with her granddaughter about who taught who more about computers. "She's on it every day, and she teaches the other children in the neighborhood."
From their living room, Maya and her mother began research on Maya's kidney disease, corresponding with patients and medical professionals in other countries who often were more responsive than local doctors. And Theodora Cox uses the Internet to help her sell a line of candles to people in the neighborhood.
Ramsey said he came to his idea of one night in early 2000, after sitting through a boring banquet for nonprofits at the Russian Tea Room in New York.
"This is really hideous," Ramsey recalled saying to colleague Ben Hecht about their roles at the Enterprise Foundation, a Washington-based national organization that provides loans and grants to other nonprofit groups to revitalize neighborhoods.
Their jobs were to help get other nonprofits to make better use of the Internet. "I kept saying, 'What about the families?' " Ramsey said.
In the lobby of their hotel that night, the two men stayed up until 2 a.m., hatching their plan on the backs of napkins. Soon, they were working out of a room in the basement of a Washington office building and hunting for start-up money.
A New York venture capital firm helped with a business plan. A few companies donated used computers; some philanthropic groups gave money. But the big break came when Ramsey and Hecht approached Cisco Systems Inc., the Silicon Valley networking giant.
After the tech bubble burst, "they were getting killed and they were laying off people," Ramsey said. "They were looking at us, like, 'Are you guys nuts?' "
But Cisco was taking the long view of the recession, creating a fellowship program for interested employees who were going to be laid off but whom the company hoped it could one day rehire.
Fellows would keep their salaries and be assigned to various nonprofit groups for a year, which turned into 18 months.
"We really looked at management" of groups seeking help from the company, said Tae Yoo, Cisco vice president of corporate affairs. "There was a real sense of entrepreneurship [at One Economy]. They want metrics."
Thirteen Cisco employees who lived in various parts of the country joined One Economy. Soon, they were working to set up networks at housing developments in cities around the country.
One of them, Robert Wendel of Portland, turned down a chance to go back to Cisco.
"I'd been working for 23 years, and essentially I was going to shift gears in five years anyway," Wendel said. "I walked away from a good job; it was a financial hit. I have large family, five kids. We had a family meeting. I said I wanted to do it, and they were supportive."
Wendel says affordable Internet access should be considered an essential utility, and new construction should always include it.
"In the early days, a lot of low-income housing didn't have washer-dryer hookups, either" he said. "Eventually, all new houses will be wired this way."
One Economy has moved out of its basement quarters and into the forefront of digital-divide efforts across the country. In addition to strictly private-sector partnerships, the group has successfully lobbied 14 states to include broadband networks in specifications for developers seeking contracts to build low-income housing.
The organization now has 32 full-time and 12 part-time employees, and a 2004 budget of $5.2 million.
Major contributors include the Kellogg Foundation, the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation, the John T. & Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation, the Allstate Foundation, the eBay Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
Ramsey, 43, a New Jersey native and a law school graduate, was named chairman of Habitat for Humanity last year.
Part of One Economy's success is that Ramsey and his staff prefer spreading the gospel and its tools rather than micromanaging efforts everywhere.
Thus, different variations on the theme are popping up around the country, with partners such as the United Way and local social service agencies taking the lead.
In Washington, for example, banks have issued loans at discounted rates to 50 families in Columbia Heights so they can purchase computers.
"One Economy wasn't competitive with any other effort," said Jane Metcalfe, who founded Wired magazine and is on One Economy's board. "It's inclusionary in every sense."
In the Coxes' West Powellton neighborhood, 50 homes are taking advantage of the wireless network put together and run by the People's Emergency Center, which operates several social service projects in the area with help from the United Way.
Theodora Cox even traveled to Washington to urge the staff of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) to support additional funding for the Philadelphia program.
A Web site run by the group at www.thebeehive.org provides information for parents and students.
The Coxes are already dreaming of the day when they can add a computer.
"It's ridiculous," said Maya Cox, whose boyfriend plans to donate one of his kidneys to her sometime in the next few months. "It's like you have to make an appointment for the computer."