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Broadband Is the Key to Low-Income Adoption of the Internet | Commentary

The Internet is a potentially transformative technology that provides the capacity to level the playing field by equalizing access to education, health care, employment, government services, news and entertainment. For all Americans to realize the power of the Internet, there are two essential ingredients: broadband deployment and broadband adoption.

Today the Senate Commerce Committee will be examining both of these elements.

The broadband deployment story in the United States is remarkable. In less than two decades, the American broadband industry has invested $1.2 trillion to deploy world-class infrastructure, which now reaches 98 percent of Americans. Indeed, three of the eight largest domestic investors this past year were broadband infrastructure companies — Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. This investment has been an extraordinary boon to our economy, even through difficult times. The cable industry alone is estimated to have created nearly 2 million American jobs.

While most Americans today take advantage of all the opportunities presented by the Internet, there is still a digital divide in this country, and it’s largely caused by adoption-related issues.

Research has shown about 30 percent of Americans don’t have broadband Internet service at home. Of those, about a quarter live in rural areas that don’t have broadband infrastructure built out. The remaining three-quarters — 21 percent of the nation — have broadband right in front of their homes and yet haven’t purchased it. In many high-income neighborhoods, 80 percent to 100 percent of homes subscribe to broadband, while in lower income areas the adoption rate is only 20 percent to 40 percent. Given the opportunity the Internet offers to students and families, the digital divide should be unacceptable as a matter of public policy to all Americans.

As smartphones have become something it seems every teenager has in his pocket, some argue this is a substitute for broadband at home. But have you ever asked a child to use a smartphone to write a report or a term paper?

We live in a highly competitive digital world where students compete with kids down the hall and across the world. The importance of being online grows daily. A recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 79 percent of students are asked by teachers to access and download assignments from online sites regularly. Four of five Fortune 500 employers now only take job applications online.

Comcast, with support from thousands of partners across the country, set out to do something about the digital divide through a national program called Internet Essentials. This is the largest, most comprehensive broadband adoption program aimed at low-income Americans.

Today, we are extremely proud to announce that we have connected more than 1 million low-income Americans to the power of the Internet in their homes, most for the very first time. That’s more than the population of many cities, such as Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Washington, D.C.

The reasons for the digital divide are complex. Research consistently shows that the main impediment is a bucket of digital literacy-related issues — lack of understanding of the value of the Internet, not knowing how to use computers or the Internet, fear of the Internet, etc. Other barriers include the cost of service and having a computer capable of connecting to the Internet.

Internet Essentials offers low-cost broadband service, the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer at a subsidized price of less than $150 and access to free digital literacy training.

With our nonprofit local partners, we have been able to train 20,000 low-income Americans in basic Internet skills in the first 22 months of the program. We’ve surveyed our Internet Essentials families and found that:

• 98 percent say their kids use the Internet for homework.

• 94 percent feel that Internet access has had a positive impact on their child’s grades.

• 59 percent feel that the Internet helped someone in their household find a job.

Broadband adoption is a complex issue. We’ve learned from our experience that adoption is greatly influenced by socio-economic factors like educational attainment and poverty. According to Pew, 90 percent of college graduates have broadband, compared with 37 percent of adults with less than a high-school education. This complicated, multifaceted problem requires innovative, multi-pronged solutions from policymakers and other stakeholders.

While we’ve connected more than a million low-income Americans to broadband, we all need to continue to do more to address the digital divide and we look forward to working with Congress, the administration, and other interested parties to make sure that all Americans get connected.

David L. Cohen is executive vice president of Comcast Corp.

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