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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.

In an era when government funding for many different programs is scrutinized in Congress, there may be even more pressure on private providers to pony up dollars for digital inclusion. And at the very least, the focus will be on mayors and town councils to exact more from private providers than in the 1970s and 1980s, when cable franchises were handed out and state legislatures gave more bargaining power to local officials to negotiate with private companies.

"It's hard to say whether it's the business of private providers" to provide free broadband, said Doug Brake, telecom policy analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation in Washington. "This is a hard problem to solve on the local level, partly because it's about actual outreach to people and convincing people why broadband is important and I'm not sure that's the role of these companies."

Brake and other experts have noted that the Pew Research Center found in a survey of 357 Americans last September that 15% of America adults don't use the Internet at all, with about one-third of that group saying the Internet wasn't relevant to them, and another third saying it was frustrating or difficult to use.

The survey is being used to justify why some neighborhoods aren't connected to the Internet, while others believe the Pew survey sample size needs to include more respondents with more details to help explain what's holding some people back, especially when low-cost cable Internet service plans have been available for years.

At Connecting for Good, a nonprofit IT support group in Kansas City, Mo., regular two-hour computer classes in two locations are usually crowded, and up to 90% of the attendees will leave after finishing a class to sign up for a $50 rebuilt computer to use at home. In some Kansas City neighborhoods, as few as 20% of resident have a home Internet connection, and Connecting for Good has tried to address that problem by installing mesh wireless networks to some apartments, then following up by getting residents familiar with basic computer skills.

Many of the people taking classes at Connecting for Good are simply intimidated by computers and need one-on-one help getting started, said Terry Zenon, one of the group's volunteer instructors.

Google Fiber's arrival in the Kansas City area has helped supercharge interest in home broadband, according to Connecting for Good volunteers. Even so, Google has so far resisted connecting its fiber to Wi-Fi routers to serve low-income apartment buildings in the belief that fiber to each home is more secure and reliable, especially where Wi-Fi doesn't work well through concrete walls.

Google says it alone can't solve the digital inclusion problem, and nobody disagrees.


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