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February 14, 2016

The Question of Broadband Access for the Poor and Municipal Broadband


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.

  • Incredulous_one

    Broadband is NOT a civil right! We’re already paying insane taxes to subsidize broadband for rural areas – now we have to pay for ghettos? Give me a break – PLEASE! Aint no more blood in this turnip and I’m getting really mad at the squeezers like Booker.

  • Steve Gund

    This article is an example of fairness going to far. If the poor want to get off of their buts and look for work that will put money on the table I am sure that there would be a lot more people working. Entitlements has brought about a blight in the communities across the United States. The poor are not working, are not going to work. All they look for is the politician who is going to give them more for doing nothing. The only way out for this country to change is stop the entitlements. Let those who think they are entitled go to war, don’t think for a minute that they won’t. They are so stuck on entitlements that they will start taking what they think is theirs from those who have what they want. Just look at what happens when we have a riot in the streets. They will find out that we who work are fed up with feeding those who are not willing to work. Fairness is not in the constitution it is only in the politicians playbook at least those who have a BIG “D” following their name. In the article above we have a politician who is worried that the poor are not getting their fair share! The politician would have a BIG “D” after his name also. Mr. Booker should go home and start teaching his followers how to work. How to use the public library, Internet is free there. Teach then to go back to school and learn to read, by the way how can they use the Internet if they can not read? Get their high school degree. Yet I do not think Mr. Booker knows how to accomplish that. If he did he surly would not be a politician.

  • Knuckles Mutatis

    It’s not just about the poor: the US now pathetically lags behind virtually every first world nation in terms of Internet price & performance, because the US Government does nothing end this un-competitive quasi-monopoly state of ISPs.

    Put simply: Americans are being ripped off, and the Government is accepting bribes to continue preventing competition.

  • Mike Barry

    Now I have to pay for high speed internet services for the welfare class? Why don’t I just be mandated to buy the a house? Oh, that’s right, I already have to pay for that too!

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