The former homeless man bringing web access to the Bronx

Marlin Jenkins

The digital divide – the economic gap between those with internet access and those without – is a growing problem throughout the world, and not just in developing economies. Many people are trying the bridge this gap, and here are some of their stories.

As a teenager, Marlin Jenkins was homeless for a couple of years.

Now, aged 45, he is trying to help the 40% of households in New York’s Bronx district without internet get online.

“When education, banking and healthcare are online, and huge groups can’t leverage these tools, the people who struggle most are struggling harder,” he says.

Mr Jenkins and his two brothers, one of whom has cerebral palsy, were raised by a single mother. When the family’s housing in Yonkers, New York fell through, his mother moved them 50 miles upstate in search of somewhere to live – a search which proved unsuccessful and resulted in a period of homelessness.

He still managed to gain his high school diploma though, and after university worked for telecoms giants Verizon and AT&T, then founded a gaming start-up.

He says his first response to having been homeless was that “I needed to make as much money as possible out of college” to provide for his family, but says the 9/11 terror attacks later changed his perspective, deciding instead to “cut my profit to give more back”.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many students in the Bronx district of New York have no internet at home

Eight years ago, he passed a five-year-old girl outside a Bronx library on his way home.

“She was crying to her mother about not being able to finish her homework because she didn’t have internet access at home, and the library was closed,” he says.

“I’ll never forget the mother’s face, she was distraught and it was heartbreaking.”

The experience inspired him to found Neture in 2015, a start-up offering low-income Bronx residents free access to online education, healthcare and finance resources. Residents can also buy 25 megabit per second (Mbps) broadband for wider web surfing if they want to.

Neture is making its first large-scale deployment this month in a 12-storey apartment block.

“People say, why don’t you create a food platform, or something else tech-driven. But if you can’t connect to the internet, it doesn’t matter what else you can do,” says Mr Jenkins.

Today, just over half – 51.2% – of the world’s population is online, says the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union.

This means billions of people are missing out on the clear economic benefits internet access can bring.

Some studies have suggested that every 10% increase in broadband penetration increases a country’s economic output by 1%, and other country-specific studies in Africa have established a clear link between poverty alleviation and access to mobile internet.