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The FCC's plan to bring the Internet to the poor

The FCC's "Connect to Compete" plans on bringing the Internet to the U.S.'s poor.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

I know about poor. I grew up in the backwoods of West Virginia. I was lucky. I had several gifts and made the most of my chances. Thus, I was able to move from a dirt road to Manhattan skyscrapers in a few years. Most poor people don't get that kind of shot. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to help today's poverty-stricken youth get their chance to move up by unveiling a plan to bring broadband Internet connections to eligible low-income families, Connect to Compete.

Working in partnership with National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) ISPs the FCC has arranged for poor families to get broadband Internet connections, without an installation/activation fee and no modem rental fees (with an option to purchase a $10 modem) for $9.95 a month. Eligibility for Connect to Compete will be limited to households that have a child enrolled in the national school lunch program and that are not current or recent broadband subscribers.

According to the NCTA, “Broadband is an increasingly integral part of getting a quality education, yet too few of the most needy kids have the service at home. Research shows the barriers to broadband adoption involve a complex mix of digital literacy, perceived relevance of online content, and access to low-cost computers and Internet service. Compete to Compete is the largest private sector initiative ever to address one key prong of the adoption problem: getting broadband Internet into the homes of students where the adoption problem is most acute. [It] can give millions more students the tools to do homework at home and to develop the skills they will need to find a job in the 21st Century economy.”

In a statement FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski expanded on this theme, “There is a growing divide between the digital-haves and have-nots. No Less than one-third of the poorest Americans have adopted broadband, while 90%+ of the richest have adopted it. Low-income Americans, rural Americans, seniors, and minorities disproportionately find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide and excluded from the $8 trillion dollar global Internet economy."

You'll get no argument from me on that point. Tomorrow's good jobs are technology jobs. Basic technology literacy is as important as reading, writing and arithmetic was to earlier generations. When I say “technology literacy,” I'm not talking about being able to program in C. I'm talking about simply know how to use a Web browser and how to send an e-mail.

As Genachowski points out, 80%+ of Fortune 500 companies require online job applications, including major employers such as Wal-Mart, Target, Costco, and ExxonMobil. Increasingly, if you're not on the net you can't effectively apply to go to college or get a job.

How much of a difference does Internet access make? A lot. Genachowski cited a Federal Reserve study that “found that students with a PC and broadband at home have six to eight percentage point higher graduation rates than similar student who don’t have home access to the Internet.”

I expect that the gap between those with access to the Internet and technology and those without will only increase. For example, libraries are beginning to close their doors to patrons without e-readers. Oh, it's early days still, but you can see the trend against physical books and the buildings that hold them starting from here. You may be OK with that... if you have a e-reader and an Internet connection.

In short, we, the people of America, need Internet access for all and Connect to Compete is a step in that direction.

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