FCC unveils plan to provide broadband to the poor

By on November 9, 2011, 6:30 PM

The Federal Communications Commission has released information regarding a new strategy to increase broadband proliferation amongst low-income families. The commission has labeled the initiative "Connect to Compete" and has billed it as the largest effort ever to shrink the digital divide by offering low-cost Internet and computers to qualifying families. 

Taking some pointers from Comcast's Internet Essentials plan earlier this year, the FCC intends to get more telecommunications companies on board with a similar program. Companies participating in Connect to Compete will be offering broadband for $9.99/mo and provide the option of a desktop or laptop computer for $150. Participating companies are expected to include Comcast, Charter, Time Warner Cable, Cox and most other major cable providers. AT&T and Verizon will not be involved, although there is no mention of whether or not Connect to Compete is strictly limited to cable service. 

Despite its "biggest effort" proclamation, the FCC will not be directly investing any federal money. Instead, the agency is leveraging the wealth and reach of telecommunications companies, non-profit organizations and other private businesses to provide discounts, logistics and service to as many poor families as possible. Morgan Stanely, for example, will be providing microloans to families to who may need to purchase the $150 computer package. Redemtech will be furnishing $150 refurbished laptops and desktop packages as Microsoft will also be offering free software and a line of $250 computers for underprivileged families.

Roughly 17 million Americans are expected to be eligible for the service, but fewer are expected to qualify. In order to qualify for Connect to Compete, households must have a child enrolled in the National School Lunch Program and must not be a current broadband subscriber. In addition, Comcast's similar (but compensatory) Internet Essentials plan does carry with it a few stipulations. Those enrolling in Internet Essentials must have not been subscribers for up to 90 days prior, must not have a past-due bill and also must not have equipment returned. It is unclear what guidelines the FCC will set, if any, on restricting access to Connect to Compete.

Comcast's Internet Essentials program is "compensatory" because the company promised it as a deal sweetener to appease the FCC during anti-trust negotations to acquire NBCUniversal. Internet Essentials is already available and is slated to remain available for three years. Connect to Compete will be available for two years and subject to review and renewal at a future date.

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