The National Broadband Plan has put the spotlight squarely on getting broadband service to the roughly 35% of U.S. households that don’t subscribe. I don’t think anyone can disagree with this overarching goal, and it’s clear that it will take a multi-pronged approach to bridge this gap.
The good news is that we have significant research which shows why these households haven’t yet subscribed. In some cases, challenges in reaching these homes have been facilities-based – finding new and innovative ways of getting broadband service to rural and remote areas.
But in many other cases, as Pew Research and other firms have pointed out, the challenges involve “barriers to adoption,” namely, the availability of affordable computers, digital and technical literacy, an understanding of the relevance of broadband service, or the ability to afford the service itself (For further details, see the FCC paper entitled "Broadband Adoption and Use in America.").
We’ve been concerned about these issues for a long time. Cable ISPs have invested heavily in building out their networks, making broadband service available to 92% of American households. We’ve also focused on elements of digital literacy to help families better understand how to manage the content coming into their homes. And, we are sensitive to the affordability of broadband service. Many cable ISPs have established tiers of broadband service which allow subscribers to buy whatever level of service makes the most sense for them.
Broadband access for the two-thirds of American households that have it wouldn’t have been possible without the leadership of the private sector. So we strongly agree with the Plan that one of the best ways to help connect more homes is through partnerships in which both the government and private industry bring something to the table.
Last December, after consultation with federal policy makers and other stakeholders, we proposed the Adoption Plus (“A+”) initiative. A+ is a proposed two-year, public-private partnership. It’s designed to promote sustainable broadband adoption for a vitally important population, middle school-aged children in low income households that don’t currently subscribe to broadband service. Under the proposal, cable ISPs are prepared to offer deeply discounted broadband service and equipment, in partnership with schools, companies, and digital literacy groups that could help provide – to households where students qualify for free or reduced school meals – a package of affordable hardware and software, and training in digital literacy (See more in this previous post.).
Our strong interest in this kind of collaborative approach is why we’re happy to participate in a new pilot program that includes broadband ISPs, computer technology companies, nonprofits and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to help bring broadband service to low-income homes around the country.
Under the leadership of One Economy, a global nonprofit committed to stimulating broadband adoption efforts in the neediest households, several parties have jointly filed an application to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration for funding through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. The coalition will work with HUD to increase broadband adoption efforts in public housing and multi-family assisted communities. If the stimulus application is approved, federal funding – combined with actual and in-kind contributions from the various members of the coalition – would help bring broadband service to families in up to 250,000 government-supported housing units nationwide. This target group encompasses many of the same families we propose to reach with the Adoption Plus proposal.
The coalition built around this HUD initiative comprises a unique collection of seemingly strange bedfellows. There are the non-profits – One Economy and Connected Nation. There are the hardware and software manufacturers – Intel, Dell, and Microsoft. Telco ISP AT&T is involved in supporting the application, as are 14 of our member companies – BendBroadband; Bresnan Communications; Bright House Networks; Cablevision Systems Corp.; Charter Communications; Comcast; Cox Communications; Eagle Communications, Inc.; Mediacom Communications Corp.; Midcontinent Communications; Sjoberg’s Cable TV; Suddenlink Communications; Time Warner Cable; and US Cable Group, covering some 85% of households across the country. Two trade associations – NCTA and USTelecom – also are in the mix.
The concept is simple. Each entity involved in the initiative plays to its strengths in helping low-income families overcome barriers to adoption. HUD will identify eligible households for the service. The computer companies provide affordable hardware – which would be partly subsidized by the stimulus funding – and software, to help make families broadband-ready. The nonprofits then provide training in digital skills and literacy, to families that are new to broadband. And once these pieces are in place, the ISPs would offer deep discounts on broadband service, reduced-price or free modems, and free standard installation.
If you have read the Broadband Plan or its executive summary, the rationale behind this coalition may sound familiar. The Plan highlighted the importance of creating, “public-private partnerships of hardware manufacturers, software companies, broadband service providers, and digital literacy training partners to improve broadband adoption and utilization by working with federal agencies already serving non-adopting communities.”
We think that with the formation of this coalition, and our ongoing efforts around Adoption Plus, we have hit the mark.