Is Cable Offer of Internet Access for Low Income Families Real?

New FCCOrleans The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced with great fanfare a program that would supposedly reduce the “digital divide” between poorer families and the rest of the highly connected rest of the country.  Sounds good, but reading the fine print on some of these deals, makes me pretty skeptical, or at least of a mind that we need to push the companies to do the most, rather than the least to make this happen.

First, in the grand tradition of the Obama Administration, this is a voluntary program from the cable internet providers, and of course even at $9.99 (with conditions of course!), everyone is very clear that it is so cheap for the cable companies to provide the service that they will still be making a significant profit even at those rates (WTF!?!).

Secondly, there are a lot of bells and whistles, most of them presumably based on the Comcast program that was rolled out in August in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

  • To qualify the family has to be eligible for the federal school lunch program.
  • To qualify the family has to still have at least one child in the school system throughout the qualifying period.
  • Since this is a corporate style voluntary program, the eligible families can’t have had cable internet access previously or an outstanding cable bill of any kind with the company (God knows that could be anybody!).

Thirdly, though it includes a lot of the major companies, importantly it does NOT include Verizon and AT&T, which are huge.  It does include Times Warner, Cox and Charter according to the New York Times.

Finally, there is a long rollup on this program – Spring 2012 – which means there is also an opportunity now to press harder for the program to be better!

And, so you get cable for $9.99, you still are not on the internet without a computer and the rest of the gear.  According to the announcements the plan for that is a “refurbished” computer for about $150.00, some Microsoft software being provided for free, and a security program, also provided for free.

Many questions remain.

  • How does the low income family swing this?
  • Supposedly there are deals with “microfinance” loans available, though no details there.    Who are they?
  • Who does the outreach?
  • Who is going to provide the “geek patrol” that will actually enable this to happen?
  • Who are the nonprofit partners and are they able to get this done or are they just going to leave flyers out on some community bulletin boards?  They claim non-profit partners.  The Comcast Philly rollout indicated the partners would be the school district and some others, though no one with recognizable grassroots strength in such communities (like Action United, the former Pennsylvania ACORN).

There were questions about access to jobs on content, but this program is clearly slanted towards education, not employment, so the answers feel flimsy.

The low hanging, immediate questions would include the following:

  • Why not a real “lifeline” internet program that is mandatory and available to all?
  • Why was the cost not set at breakeven?
  • Why are the cable companies not “carrying the loan” for the computers rather than these supposed microcredit operations?
  • Why is there no “maximum feasible participation” program to assure full access among eligible low income families?

Yes, this is a step forward.  Yes, this is better than nothing.

Importantly this is an opportunity for community based organizations with a low and moderate income base to push for much, much more and to press hard and aggressively for the steps necessary to really achieve “maximum feasible participation.”

The door is now open.  We should all crash through!

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