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As AT&T and Google push broadband adoption, the feds are non-players

Matt Hamblen | April 24, 2014
AT&T and Google have talked up plans to extend supercharged broadband speeds to several U.S. cities and offer lesser service for free to underserved areas. But whether they, and other providers, can bridge the nation's digital divide without federal help remains to be seen.

"We're offering residents in Google Fiber cities an affordable way to get online, and our hope is that this will help make it easier for folks who haven't had access to the Internet before to get hooked up to the Web. But we also know that some people, even if they're offered a free Internet connection, just don't see the Internet as relevant to their lives."

When AT&T announced plans on April 10 for 1 gigbit fiber-optic connections to North Carolina communities, it also said it would include free 3 Mbps connections to up to 3,000 homes in that area within 10 affordable housing complexes.

When asked whether AT&T is willing to extend a similar commitment to free service for thousands of homes in the 21 new cities it has identified to receive GigaPower, an AT&T spokeswoman said in a statement it is "too soon to speculate," adding that "AT&T will share more once the agreements are approved and we get closer to launch.

"AT&T values digital inclusion and economic development," she said. "In North Carolina, working with the cities, we identified some areas where AT&T is well positioned to assist with these important goals in these communities."

John Horrigan, an independent consultant who worked on the National Broadband Plan approved in 2010, said contributions by private Internet providers like Google and AT&T are going to matter in an era when government funding of digital inclusion programs is drying up.

"What we have now is an opportunity for a real, constructive public-private dialog that means some groups don't get left out," Horrigan said. "It's time to restart the debate over whether there's going to be more government funding for broadband adoption. The fiscal environment has made that conversation difficult to start."

Horrigan said that NTIA and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, a federal initiative within the Department of Commerce, both got funding for broadband expansion in the Recovery Act of 2010, but that money is running out. "They may be out of money, but they aren't out of mission," he said. "There are still broadband adoption gaps. I'm a proponent of public-private partnerships to close the gaps, but there does need to be a public component."

As for whether there are any broadband inclusion champions in Congress, which ultimately has a say in funding, Horrigan said he knew of none. "I do believe the Obama administration cares and in the NTIA there's interest in doing more, but I don't know if they have the stomach for asking for funding at this point."

Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council Americas, said one focus for more funding has been on the Federal Communications Commission and efforts to find money for a rural fiber buildout. In addition to projects by Verizon and other large carriers, Gold estimated there are 800 smaller fiber and related Internet providers who can help carry out rural fiber connections.


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