The cable industry has always positioned its broadband as a premium product. And while that may have been justifiable by virtue of it being faster than DSL-based or wireless-based broadband, speaking plainly, it means cable broadband has always been more expensive. But even DSL can be too pricy for some.
So Comcast offering to cut the rates of access for families with children who are eligible to receive free lunches under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is legitimately a big deal, and we can perhaps forgive the MSO for launching its Internet Essentials program twice, once in its hometown of Philadelphia a couple weeks ago, and again today. Not to mention having announced it nine months ago.
Seventeen million U.S. children do not have broadband at home; of those, 7.6 million of these are in low-income households, according to a survey conducted by Connected Planet. Only 46 percent of all low-income households with children have broadband at home. Forty percent of low-income households do not own a computer, compared with only 9 percent of all other households.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski was on hand at this second launch. In prepared remarks, he said: "Look at the role broadband is already playing in education. Students increasingly need to go online to complete their homework assignments. But one-third of all students and a majority of low-income children can't."
"When roughly one-third of American kids are offline, it hurts all students. It keeps teachers from assigning Internet-based homework if a significant percentage of their students don't have broadband at home. Teaching to the lowest digital denominator doesn't work for our children or our country," Genachowski said.
The key is making sure Internet Essentials is a beginning, not an end. Comcast may be huge, but it covers only part of the country. Other MSOs should be at least evaluating whether they can offer similar deals. So should DSL and wireless broadband providers.
Service providers can make broadband more affordable to encourage wider adoption, but it is also important to remember that computers and broadband service are tools, means to an end, not ends unto themselves.
There has to be something to access: lesson plans, reliable information and more. Creating curricula is not within the purview of service providers, but they are in a position to advocate for the development of Internet-based instruction, and should do so.
Fortunately, cable knows this. The industry has funded Cable in the Classroom for years. CIC could be even more important, and perhaps participation should be opened to other service providers, as well. After all, education should be the same whether it's delivered by coaxial cable, TCP, an optical fiber, WiMAX or LTE.
The industry should also discuss opening the program, or a version of the program, to any low-income customer. As it is, the Internet Essentials deal is offered only as long as a qualifying student resides in a household.
Internet Essentials is a back door way to offer one kind of support to low-income families. Who can begrudge young students access to tools for learning?
Let's speak plainly again: Any support to low-income families is a political issue leading to bitter argument. For that alone, offering Internet Essentials is a brave maneuver, and to Comcast's credit. Genachowski gets points for working through a major corporation, which dampens the political fallout significantly.