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NCTA Proposes "A+" Broadband Adoption Program For Low-Income Families

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is proposing to offer low-income families with middle school kids half price broadband service and half price modems for two years, plus free installation.

That comes after discussions with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and broadband advisor Blair Levin about ways to boost adoption. The plan is part of a pilot program, labeled A+, a public-private partnership to boost adoption by families of middle school students in low-income households.

The announcement is expected to be made at a 1 p.m. press conference today on which Levin is expected to express his support. "Cable providers represented by NCTA which offer broadband service to 86% of U.S. households have agreed to participate in the program," said NCTA in announcing the move, "which, with full student participation, could reach a value of $572 million over the two years of the program."

As part of the public-private partnership, school districts would have to provide federally- funded digital media literacy training; something NCTA has been pushing for.

Eligible households will need to meet three criteria: participants must be middle school students, must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, and must not currently receive Internet service.

The proposal was detailed in a filing being submitted to the FCC today on its national broadband plan.

"The FCC is a strong supporter of NCTA's proposal," said an FCC source close to the broadband team.

The proposal has also been submitted to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration and Rural Utilities Service in comments on its next round of funding. Both are handing out broadband stimulus money, including for spurring adoption.

The program also anticipates a discount on computers, funded by computer manufacturers and federal funds.  

McSlarrow said the program could be pulled together by the fall of 2010 if some of the NTIA and RUS stimulus money went toward the proposal.

NCTA has been focused on adoption and cable, as the largest broadband provider, has been thinking about what it could do to boost the uptake, said NCTA Kyle McSlarrow Tuesday, adding that the new proposal is rooted in a Cox effort on a local scale.

McSlarrow said that there is no single way to reach the third of the population not adopting broadband. The first component of the plan would be federal funding for digital literacy; the second component would be discounting computers; and the third piece would be providing discounted broadband.

McSlarrow said NCTA had had discussions with computer companies, but none were signed on yet.

Given those other two elements, cable would then be willing to provide basic service at half price to households with kids in sixth grade through ninth grade. He says that will be about 3.5 million, or 1.8 million households meeting the criteria of eligibility for federal school lunch program.

He said the cable industry is not asking for any subsidy for cable service, but also said the proposal is the start of a conversation with other ISPs and computer manufacturers; an opportunity to move the needle in a very targeted way.

McSlarrow conceded that it was in his industry's interest to drive adoption, but it also has a history of helping its local communities. "I'm not going to deny that we could benefit by driving broadband adoption," he said.

McSlarrow said the two years for the pilot program was because it was a test--he said part of the proposal was to have the government test its success. He also said he did not know what would happen beyond that two year period in terms of the price break.

He said it was not clear whether the NTIA adoption funds--at least $250 million--could be used to subsidize computers.

Levin spoke briefly, saying he brought the chairman's profound thanks for the effort and calling it a "Very, very helpful proposal." He also praised Cox's Pat Esser for his participation.