FCC program to offer discounted broadband, PCs for low-income families

The Federal Communications Commission on Nov. 9 announced a program in cooperation with Internet service and equipment providers to offer affordable broadband service to low-income families.

The program, worth $4 billion, will provide high-speed Internet service to families that qualify for the National School Lunch Program for as little as $9.95 a month and computers for as little as $150.

The program is part of a broader effort by the FCC in cooperation with the private sector to close a digital divide that has left nearly one-third of Americans without broadband Internet access, which officials say is a drag on the economy.

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“Getting online is a necessity, not a convenience,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in announcing the program. “Broadband is now a basic requirement to participate in the 21 century economy.”

Other recent elements of the effort to bridge the digital divide include a private-sector outreach program called Connect to Compete to address the challenge of digital literacy by educating users, and the FCC expansion of the universal service fund, originally instituted to provide telephone service throughout the country, to include information services and provide universal access to broadband Internet service.

The FCC announcement followed the release of a Commerce Department report on broadband use in the United States that shows that 68 percent of U.S. households had broadband access in 2010, up from 64 percent in 2009.

The study classified as high-speed or broadband any connection other than a dial-up connection. Dial-up connections have become a small fraction of the Internet access market, accounting for only 3 percent of households in 2010, down from 5 percent the year before.

The information was culled from the Census’s Bureau’s Current Population Survey, which surveyed about 54,000 households in October 2010.

The study found that households with lower incomes and less education, as well as blacks, Hispanics, the disabled and those in rural areas were less likely to have Internet access at home. Seventy-two percent of white households had broadband at home, compared with 57 percent of Hispanics and 55 percent of blacks. Only 43 percent of households with annual incomes of less than $25,000 had broadband.

“This is a troubling statistic,” said Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, in releasing the report.

The main reasons given for not having Internet access were lack of interest (47 percent), expense (24 percent) and the lack of an adequate computer (15 percent).

The availability of broadband access in the nation is improving, with the latest FCC figures showing that about 90 percent of the nation’s population has access to commercial service. The most recent program announcements seek to address the remaining issues of affordability of service and hardware and software.

Participating service providers will provide eligible households high-speed service with a download speed of up to 1 megabit per second for $9.95 a month beginning with the 2012-13 school year, with no installation or modem rental fees. There will be a three-year sign-up window, and customers can participate for two years.

Eligibility is based on requirements for the National School Lunch Program, an Agriculture Department program for low-income families. Current eligibility rules, effective through June 2012, provide students from families with incomes at 130 percent of the federal poverty level with free meals. The poverty level is on a sliding scale depending on household size, with the level for a family of four set at an income of $22,350 a year.

Cable broadband providers that have committed to broadband adoption efforts to date include: BendBroadband, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, Charter, Comcast (via Internet Essentials), Cox, Eagle Communications, GCI, Insight, Mediacom, Midcontinent, Sjoberg's Cable, Suddenlink, and Time Warner Cable.

On the equipment side, Redemtech, a refurbisher of computers, will provide to eligible families a refurbished Core 2 Duo processor laptop or desktop computer with 2G of RAM, an 80G hard drive, DVD player, wireless card and LCD monitor for $150, shipped free to the home with a year of software tech support. The PCs will be loaded with Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium OS and MS Office.

Starting early next year, Microsoft will offer computers designed for students for $250. Morgan Stanley will provide microfinancing through community-based financial institutions to help families afford the upfront costs.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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