The Question of Broadband Access for the Poor and Municipal Broadband
Posted at 9:49 a.m. on July 17, 2014
Booker. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Is municipal broadband a way to lower obstacles poor people face in accessing broadband?
The issue cropped up at the end of a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday.
“For me, when I see communities in very poor census tracts in urban areas having very high costs, relatively high costs, for families of what their access is, it’s very worrisome to me,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., referring to access to broadband.
He said when he sees a municipality that’s “desperate to try to do right by poor people” want to deploy municipal broadband, it’s “kind of almost offensive to me that local lobbyists are going in and trying to pass laws that ban people from doing things that those local actors believe will lower costs for … the poor people in that community.”
In response, AT&T senior executive vice president and chief strategy office John Stankey said: “If it’s an underserved area, there probably is a role for subsidy.” But he contended it’s a different story when there are incumbent providers already there and made broader arguments against municipal broadband: deterrence of private companies and problems with projects in the long-term.
Booker sounded skeptical of the idea of deterring private companies and said the current system isn’t doing enough to provide equal access for the poor.
“Cable bills, broadband access in America right now is too expensive and it is shutting out poor people from what is becoming now essential for getting access to everything from education to job opportunities,” he said.
Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen called the digital divide “one of the greatest civil rights disparities” the country has seen, but contended that municipal broadband wasn’t the “cleanest” solution.
While the Internet has the potential to level the playing field in terms of access to education, healthcare and so on, it’s instead exacerbated differences between the haves (people who have broadband adoption rates between 85 and 95 percent, primarily in high-income communities) and the have-nots (people who have broadband adoption rates between 15 and 25 percent, primarily people in poor, urban communities and minorities), he said.
But price isn’t the biggest barrier to broadband adoption in poor communities, he said. The most important action to address the digital divide: breaking the “cycle of digital illiteracy,” he said.
“Too many people in these communities do not understand the value of the Internet, the relevance of the Internet,” he said. “They’re scared of the Internet. They don’t know what it means for them in their lives.”
Cohen pointed to Comcast’s low-income program, but Booker contended that while some of the issue has to do with the idea of digital illiteracy, the demand for the programs the company offers shows a “hunger” for low-cost options.
“Maybe I’m wrong on municipal broadband,” Booker said, adding that he’s willing to have a dialogue, but said he wanted to figure out a way to ensure all Americans have a “free, robust, net neutral Internet” as well as affordable broadband access, and aligned it’s necessity to individual success with electricity and water.