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Cohen: Price of Broadband Not the Problem

Newport, R.I. -- As Washington policymakers ponder ways to improve the country’s broadband-adoption performance, at least one cable-industry official believes public programs designed to drive down the cost of access won’t succeed in convincing millions of Americans to sign up for high-speed-Internet access.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen said Thursday in remarks at the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association convention here that broadband adoption was far more complicated that the just price of service. Even free broadband service, he stressed, would not address the needs of people who consider the Internet, computers and computer software too complicated to master.

"The single greatest impediment today to bridging the digital divide is not the cost of access to the Internet. It is the training around access to the Internet … it's education and it is the hardware that is necessary to access the Internet," Cohen said.

Comcast, he added, has addressed the so-called digital divide in its communities by rolling out free Internet service, coupled with related educational programs at schools, libraries, senior centers and recreation halls.

"I would argue that this has done more to bridge the digital divide than every single government program that has been tried across the entire country over the past 25 years,” Cohen said.

Cox Communications, Rhode Island’s leading incumbent cable operator, has reached out to “nonprofits and groups that can bring [broadband] to broad mass,” including Boys and Girls Clubs, said Jill Campbell, Cox’s senior VP of operations, who spoke on a panel with Cohen.

“That transcends to the schools and the areas in which they live,” Campbell said.

In a recent speech, Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin made comments widely interpreted to mean that he now supports using federal money to subsidize broadband-access providers that are willing to connect unserved areas.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service already provides about $1 billion annually in low-cost loans to broadband providers. Responding to cable complaints, Congress is trying to rein in the RUS program after reports that funds had gone to markets where service already exists.

Last year, Senate telecommunications legislation, which died after passing the Commerce Committee, called for spending $500 million to subsidize rural broadband providers facing prohibitive deployment costs. The bill would have given the FCC the option to tax cable-modem revenue to fund the program.

Without referencing any particular program, Cohen said government policies that focused on the retail price of access in a vacuum were destined to fail.

"You could have free Wi-Fi service nationally and I would argue that you would not do very much at all to bridge the digital divide because the very people who you are targeting to take advantage of with that free service don't understand what they can do on the Internet, don't have the training and education to use the Internet and don't have the money to afford a laptop or a computer or repeater antenna to bring the wireless antenna into their house," he added.