ConnectHome is Not Enough to Bridge the Digital Divide

Ideas and Issues

connect-home-e1437087538673New Orleans     In Durant, Oklahoma in the heart of the Choctaw Nationa, President Obama essentially likened his new program, ConnectHome, to a “dreamweaver,” saying that America has “an interest in making sure [young people] can achieve [their] dreams.”   The pilot program is touted as providing internet access to 275000 households containing 200000 children in 27 cities and one Native American tribal area. The program developed through the Department of Housing and Urban Development chose the cities competitively and the list is wide ranging including a little bit for everyone in Albany, GA; Atlanta, GA; Baltimore, MD; Baton Rouge, LA; Boston, MA; Camden, NJ; Choctaw Nation, OK; Cleveland, OH; Denver, CO; Durham, NC; Fresno, CA; Kansas City, MO; Little Rock, AR; Los Angeles, CA; Macon, GA; Memphis, TN; Meriden, CT; Nashville, TN; New Orleans, LA; New York, NY; Newark, NJ; Philadelphia, PA; Rockford, IL; San Antonio, TX; Seattle, WA; Springfield, MA; Tampa, FL; and Washington, DC.

Looking at the details, though this is a very, very, very little bit for anyone. This is not a bridge across the digital divide so much as a small ball of twine pitched over a ravine pretending to be a rope bridge. While low-and-moderate income families are falling to the bottom, Wiley Coyote style, let’s look at the devilish details.

It’s not free. It’s some free. Supposedly, Google Fiber is going to offer some free Internet connections to some, but certainly not all, public housing residents in Atlanta, Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri, and Nashville. Those are the fortunate ones. For the rest of the supposed beneficiaries with little thanks to eight different internet providers they might qualify to pay $9.95 per month. The announcement from the White House and other reports are also vague on whether all of the rest really will be offered the $9.95 plan, so there may be more sadness to come in other housing projects.

This is the same bait-and-switch on closing the digital divide that we have seen earlier with Comcast that has under-performed and scammed on the program, even though it was expressly required by the FCC as a condition of its merger with NBC/Universal, and became one of many Achilles heels that blocked the Comcast monopoly acquisition of Times-Warner Cable. Had Comcast spent any money on anything other than public relations to make the program work, many times a quarter million households around the country, including in housing projects, would already have internet.

The New York Times in their puff piece about the ConnectHome program called out Cox Communications for special praise as one the eight providers. Unlike the Times we don’t have memory loss about this. Cox was also one of the companies that the FCC had previously touted as having volunteered, along with Times-Warner, to institute a $9.95 plan without an FCC order, just out of the goodness of their corporate heart, much like this pilot. In Baton Rouge and New Orleans efforts by ACORN, Local 100, and our allies, were completely unsuccessful in finding as much as heartbeat for their initiative. One spokesperson for the company in New Orleans claimed that they had tried putting out the word for a couple of weeks in the school district, though no one could remember what happened or exactly when or knew if anyone had gotten the word to sign-up, and they refused to commit to allowing us to spread the word, because no one locally was sure if the program continued. Welcome to nothing.

When ACORN negotiated with Rogers, one of the big three telecoms in Canada, the company almost immediately agreed to provide a $9.95 program for all public housing residents in Toronto, and has subsequently improved the program as we made further demands. Friends, these companies make money on these plans, this is no “favor” to the poor, but a business opportunity on the low end of the market. Although I should add, that it depends on whether a family can qualify, which has also been the Comcast problem for many as the company dredged up unpaid bills at the addresses from years ago as excuses not to approve applicants who made it through their rat maze.

Julian Castro, the new head of HUD, wants to make this a signature program in the little time he has to make a mark at the agency, but what he is talking about is making broadband connections part of the embedded infrastructure of newly built housing. Unfortunately there’s not much being built, and basically that just saves money for the internet providers.

Obama has been doing better at this stuff. This program is a back slide. This is just a head fake example of the common deceit of neoliberalism’s false promises of public-private partnerships where the government aids and abets and the public gets squat. And, in this case the digital divide just gets wider.