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FCC takes on broadband cost barriers, but will it go far enough?

One year ago, I wrote “One Step Off the Super Highway,” about Judith Theodore, an unemployed District resident who spent her afternoons and weekends shuttling her three children between public libraries to access the Web. For her and so many others disconnected from broadband services, the first and biggest hurdle is cost. They tell me that they simply can’t afford a computer or the monthly service fees.

After the story ran, Washington Post readers responded with generosity. A woman bought her middle school-aged son, Steven, a computer. Another reader agreed to pay for her monthly broadband bills.

Theodore told me months ago she felt lucky to have been chosen from among the region's many struggling households to have her family's story shared with so many helpful Post readers. But most people aren't so fortunate, she said.

That brings me to the Federal Communications Commission’s Digital Inclusion Summit on Tuesday, during which Chairman Julius Genachowski discussed ways to get the three out of ten disconnected people in the United States connected to broadband services.

At the event, Genachowski reviewed the results of an agency survey showing that the problems of broadband adoption stem not only from cost issues, but also from the feeling among respondents that the Internet isn’t that important to their lives as well as a low rate of digital literacy – Washington-speak for how well people understand how to use the Web.

"The answer to adoption is addressing all of the above," Genachowski said in an interview.

During the summit he went over general ideas to help with costs, including partnerships between companies and government agencies to provide subsidies. He’s also made 1 gigabyte connections at public institutions like libraries and schools a goal by 2020.

But what really caught my eye was this line tucked into the agency's press release: “Consider use of spectrum for free or very low cost wireless broadband service.”

A national free wireless network? How fast would it be? Who would provide it?

The implications are significant if the agency aims high. Or it could be flop, public interest groups say. Under former chairman Kevin Martin, the FCC tried something similar – but the plan never got off the ground because of resistance to a slow, filtered network presented by company M2Z. A source at the agency said the recommendation in the national broadband plan, to be presented next week, will be different from that recommended by M2Z.

The announcements came as cable giant Comcast reportedly raised prices for Internet service. Broadband DSL Reports wrote today that low-priced broadband service tiers will be increased by $2 a month starting April 1. A Time Warner Cable executive said at an investor conference, according to Dow Jones Newswires, that the company's broadband service is doing so well it has the "ability to increase pricing for high-speed data."

Ben Scott, policy director for public interest group Free Press said in a statement that the rise in prices indicates a broken market without enough competition.

"Nothing at today’s FCC event on adoption drew an explicit connection between affordability, adoption and price competition," Scott said. "Comcast is typical of the nation's broadband giants -- their own costs are declining, yet prices keep rising."

The implications of wiring an area can be game changing. Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.) said during Tuesday's event that Omaha is one of the most wired cities in America with a fiber network connecting schools, businesses, hospitals, homes and government buildings. That has spurred the growth of a big telemarketing industry there as well as e-commerce businesses. As a result, Terry said, the city has an unemployment rate of less than 5 percent – about half the national rate.

Photo: Judith Theodore and son, Steven

By Cecilia Kang  |  March 10, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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