Using mergers to narrow the digital divide has been part of the FCC’s approach to increase broadband adoption. The agency required CenturyLink Inc. and Qwest Communications International Inc. in their 2011 merger approval to offer a program similar to Internet Essentials for five years.
But so far the agreements haven’t worked.
“Requiring Internet Essentials and programs like it as a condition for merger is silly,” said Levin, the architect of the National Broadband Plan and a fellow at the Aspen Institute’s Communications and Society Program.
Levin said “the mistake” he and the FCC made in developing a policy to connect more low-income individuals to the Internet was to focus on ensuring a broadband infrastructure was widely available, rather than on creating the conditions that would encourage the adoption of it by those who don’t have service.
Most of the government spending on broadband has been targeted at wiring schools and libraries with high-speed Internet service. Under a program Obama announced last year, the FCC will increase its spending on educational broadband by $1 billion, nearly doubling to $2.2 billion.
And the FCC program transitioning subsidized telephone service to the poor to Internet broadband is just moving too slowly, Levin said.
The efforts are worthwhile, but poorer Americans need Internet connections in their homes to fully take advantage of what’s online. Schools and libraries close, forcing students to hang out at a McDonalds to connect to WiFi so they can complete their homework. And if you’re not a student, a high-speed Internet connection in a school doesn’t help.
While schools and libraries help, not having a home connection “will mean a person will have difficulty participating in a productive way with the economy and civic society,” Levin said in an email.
Cities such as Chattanooga, Wilson, N.C., and Glenwood Springs, Colo., have built their own networks to bring high-speed Internet service to their residents. But the giant telecommunications companies, including Comcast and AT&T Inc., have since persuaded 20 states to pass laws restricting or outright banning municipalities from building public networks, even as they don’t provide programs for low-cost connections to all of a cities’ poor residents.
Levin suggested the FCC could allow broadband providers to bid on providing Internet service to low-income neighborhoods, with the business going to the lowest bidder. He also recommends the government pay a portion of qualifying users’ Internet bills if they prove they go online to search for jobs, view educational programs, apply for government services or other socially beneficial activities.
Expanding computer and Internet training programs by community groups would also help convince elderly people and others who don’t use the Internet of its value and shrink the divide, Levin said.
The Media Mobilizing Project, a community organizer and support group for low-income families in Philadelphia, works to publicize local and state policies that harm low-income residents.
“I’m not saying Comcast is a bad guy, but how do we transform Internet Essentials to let everyone, even if they owe money to Comcast, or have unreturned equipment, or aren’t part of the school lunch program and are 45 years old and out of a job, to get connected so they can change their lives?” asked Hannah Sassaman, policy director at the project and a frequent critic of Comcast. “One thing we’ve learned, broadband adoption is not accomplished through public relations ploys. It’s accomplished through working with people every day, in their day-to-day lives, to show they can get online for reasons they think are important.”
That also means including seniors, said Tom Kamber, executive director of the Older Adults Technology Services, a nonprofit group in New York City that offers digital training courses for seniors, whose broadband adoption rate languishes at 41 percent, “which is a catastrophe,” Kamber said.
“Once they get online to find out they can socialize and save money, they don’t want to give it up,” Kamber said. “It’s a health benefit by keeping them from becoming isolated.”
Kamber added, “I genuinely believe Comcast is going to take the next step to do something. Internet Essentials is extremely promising, but I would like to see more and I know they can do more.”
Kamber may be waiting for a while. For now, Cohen said, Comcast will keep Internet Essentials as is.
“There is always more that we can do,” Cohen acknowledged. “But we don’t want to lose the focus on the population who we started with.”
As it stands, the FCC is reviewing whether a Comcast takeover of Time Warner is in the public interest. If greater Internet adoption for a wider range of people, like Ed, becomes a condition, Internet Essentials may be in for a few changes.
Correction, May 29, 2014 at 12:00pm: A previous version of this article misstated the unit measurement in Comcast Corp.’s service area that have annual income equal to or less than what the federal government set for eligibility in the national free and reduced-price school lunch program. It should have been 7.2 million families as defined by the Census Bureau, not people.