The cable industry's proposal — I won't say modest proposal, because of the Swift overtone — to provide discounted broadband service to income-eligible homes with middle-school students is timely in several ways.
It comes as the Obama administration is trying to encourage broadband adoption as an economic stimulus and to boost American global competitiveness.
It comes when the Obama administration has put money on the table to develop broadband in underserved areas.
And it comes as industry leader Comcast has a cross-media merger proposal to buy control of NBC Universal's several broadcast and cable networks and movie studio — a deal Federal Communications Commission member Michael Copps said faces “a steep climb” before he's persuaded it's in the public interest.
These are related concerns. Comcast, and all of cable, wants to be on good terms with the government, to state the obvious. The Obama administration thinks broadband deployment is worth investing in. This plan would be a way for cable to tap into that broadband adoption funding indirectly: the idea is that the government would pay for digital media literacy training to help parents and school children make safe, sound decisions on using the Internet as a homework and learning aid.
Comcast's self-interest? I'd just point to the column by Joe Waz, Comcast's public policy senior vice president, in Tuesday's Huffington Post that the NCTA's Adoption Plus (A-Plus) concept (see Rules, page 18) grew out of broadband-adoption discussions he and EVP David Cohen had hosted in Washington over the last several months with reps of many different interest groups.
Timing-wise, it's all good.
As the parent of an almost-middle-school-age student, I know how important computers and broadband access are for kids to research, write and even deliver their homework. (We forget to bring in the printed-out version sometimes — thank you, e-mail.)
Cable has a history of knowing the value of good deeds for children. Cable in the Classroom provided teaching materials before the Internet even was an option. Local cable systems have wired unnumbered schools and libraries as part of their franchise commitments. Internet safety has been part of operators' mission for several years. Also, this program is modeled on a local initiative done by Cox Communications in Santa Barbara, Calif.: cable gets good ideas from its own members.
Critics have pointed to some holes in the A-Plus equation. Even at half price, high-speed Internet service (say $15 per month plus a $2.50 discounted modem rental) can be more than some families can afford. Computer makers aren't part of the program yet, and a lack of computers is a big part of the problem. (NCTA expects them to join later.) There is a government component that can't be guaranteed, although the FCC chairman has lent his support to the plan. There's a two-year limit to the plan, but it could be extended later if it's successful.
NCTA chief Kyle McSlarrow conceded the program could bring new broadband customers to cable operators, an economic incentive. Given cable broadband profit margins, even half-price service at 1 Megabit per second isn't going to be a financial drain. PSA time to promote the program isn't costly and provides public-image benefits.
You can't argue it's a program that can help low-income households, though. NCTA has solid testimonials as to the need from public-policy law groups, Internet safety advocates, legislators and educators. It's a good deed. And a well-timed one.