Cable industry outlines broadband adoption program for low-income families

The NCTA would provide discounts for broadband service under the proposal, but would also require help of U.S. government and local school districts

A cable industry trade group has proposed a program that would help low-income families of middle-school students get broadband service in their homes, with cable broadband providers pitching in about $572 million worth of discounted service over two years.

Under the Adoption Plus, or A+, program, U.S. cable broadband providers would discount monthly broadband service and cable modem prices by 50 percent, said Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). But the proposal would also require the help of the U.S. government and local school districts to implement, he said during a press conference.

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The proposal, offered to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), asks for $100 million in federal government funding to support digital media literacy training programs offered by local schools. The proposal also asks the U.S. government to establish a program to provide discounted computers to low-income families, through partnerships with computer vendors or nonprofit groups.

The program seeks to address a variety of factors about why many low-income families don't have broadband access, including the cost of computers, the cost of broadband service, and a lack of training, McSlarrow said. About a third of the U.S. households that have broadband available in the United States don't subscribe, he noted.

"There's no silver bullet that's going to solve this," he said. "It's a fairly complex problem, and it involves ... whether or not a consumer thinks broadband is relevant to their lives, whether or not they've had the necessary digital literacy training, whether or not they own a computer."

The goal of the NCTA was to create a comprehensive approach that attacks many of the reasons people don't have broadband, McSlarrow said.

The proposal would target about 1.8 million low-income households in the United States, with about 3.5 million children in middle school, the NCTA said. Families with middle-school-aged students eligible for reduced cost or free lunches under the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program would also be eligible for the NCTA program.

The A+ program would be open to any Internet service provider that wanted to participate, McSlarrow said.

Blair Levin, executive director of the FCC's broadband initiative, called the NCTA plan a "very, very helpful proposal."

The NCTA proposal targets what may be the segment of the U.S. population that most needs broadband, school-aged children, Levin said. "With most kids now using the Internet for homework, our country can't really afford for millions of kids to fall further behind," he said during NCTA's press conference. "You've put this proposal together in a very thoughtful manner."

The program would provide entry-level broadband service at a 50 percent discount for two years, a modem at a 50 percent discount, free installation of the service, and free parental control and online security software. To be eligible, families must not already have broadband service.

Asked if the proposal will serve to give the cable industry more customers, McSlarrow acknowledged that his members have an interest in increasing broadband adoption. But the program will have a large impact, he added.

"Not only will [the students] benefit, but America benefits," he said.

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