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Empowering East Portland: Free Geek Secures $2 Million Grant for Tech Accessibility

In a major win for the tech community in Portland, the esteemed nonprofit organization Free Geek has been awarded a substantial $2 million grant by Portland's cable regulatory commission. This generous one-time injection of funds is set to play a pivotal role in bolstering Free Geek's ongoing mission to enhance technology accessibility across the Portland area.

This financial boon finds its origins in a reserve fund established years ago, comprised of TV franchise fees contributed by cable companies. Initially earmarked for the provision of high-speed internet connections to public institutions like libraries and fire stations, these funds had remained largely dormant. Notably, a significant sum of $4 million from a prior franchise agreement with Comcast had remained unutilized in the cable TV company's accounts since 2011.

In a commendable act, the Mt. Hood Cable Regulatory Commission and Comcast have now agreed to redirect these funds towards the noble cause of expanding digital access. The grant awarded to Free Geek marks the inauguration of this transformative journey.

Juan Muro, the Executive Director of Free Geek, expressed his excitement, stating, "This is an exciting development, and it means that we will be able to further our existing initiatives."

Free Geek initially garnered national recognition during the early 2000s for its commendable initiative of refurbishing old computers and donating them to individuals who volunteered with the organization, thereby equipping them with valuable technology skills.

In recent years, Free Geek has expanded its focus to encompass digital education. Their efforts now extend to educating individuals on effective computer usage and guiding them toward resources that can help them afford devices and internet access. This expanded mission is particularly geared towards addressing the technology disparities prevalent in East Multnomah County.

Free Geek collaborates closely with community organizations to disseminate information about its services and to connect individuals with programs like the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which extends a $30 discount on internet services to eligible individuals.

Recognizing that some underserved communities may be skeptical of such offers, doubting their sincerity, Free Geek has formed partnerships with established community organizations serving Portland's diverse population, such as Latinos and women in technology. This approach fosters trust and facilitates the effective communication of available resources and services.

Over the course of the next two years, Free Geek will receive this grant, which will provide a significant boost to its annual budget of $4 million. While acknowledging that this is a one-time infusion of funds, the organization remains hopeful that it will raise awareness of their efforts to bridge the digital divide and attract more community partners to join their cause.

Juan Muro adds, "This places our mission in the spotlight for others to see and, hopefully, rally to our cause in bridging the digital divide. We will actively pursue our goals for a year, year and a half, and then return to our regular programming."

The next crucial step involves determining how to allocate the remaining $2 million from the 2011 franchise funds, which still remain in Comcast's possession. However, the Portland cable regulators maintain oversight and must approve any use of these funds.

Rebecca Gibbons, the manager of the cable commission, emphasizes the importance of community-based organizations in driving technology accessibility, stating, "We have been in discussions with Comcast over the past several years on how we could be more responsive to our community."

Comcast and the cable commission have embarked on the path of hiring a contractor to assess the impact of Free Geek's program. This evaluation will serve as a valuable resource in determining the optimal utilization of the remaining $2 million from the old franchise fund. Possibilities include directing the funds towards other digital inclusion programs or investing in infrastructure upgrades to make high-speed connections more accessible.

Rebecca Gibbons concludes, "We are open to various possibilities. I believe all options are on the table."

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