Obama to Expand Internet Access for the Poor, Because the Web Is a Necessity

A Choctaw girl meets President Obama after his speech on Wednesday.

Photo from Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly doesn’t think that Internet access is a necessity in Americans’ daily lives. But President Obama is known to disagree, and Wednesday he announced the ConnectHome plan to bring affordable Internet to public housing in 28 cities.

At a school in Durant, Oklahoma, the capital of the Choctaw Nation, Obama said, “If we don’t get these young people the access to what they need to achieve their potential, then it’s our loss; it’s not just their loss,” the New York Times reports. Under ConnectHome, 200,000 children in 275,000 homes will benefit from either free Internet access or broadband that costs about $10 per month.

Obama made the announcement alongside the release of a broadband usage study from the White House Council of Economic Advisers that shows disparities in computer ownership versus actual Internet access. The report points out that having access at a school or library is different from having constant connectivity in the home, creating the so-called homework gap for some students.

The analysis shows that there have been gains in providing connectivity for disenfranchised populations in the United States, but “there is still a substantial distance to go, particularly in our poorest neighborhoods and most rural communities, to ensure that all Americans can take advantage of the opportunities created by recent advances in computing and communications technology.”

Companies like Best Buy will offer subsidized devices like tablets for people who qualify for the program, and Google is incorporating ConnectHome into its plans for Fiber. In a blog post, Fiber’s head of community impact Erica Swanson wrote:

We realize … that providing an Internet connection is just one piece of the puzzle. People can only take advantage of the many benefits of the web when they understand why it matters and know how to use it. That’s why we’ll also partner with ConnectHome … to develop basic computer skills training and create computer labs to host these trainings in each of our Fiber markets.

A recent Pew study showed that education is a big factor in Americans’ ability to utilize the full potential of the Internet, or engage with it at all. Combined with the FCC’s decision to allow phone subsidies to apply to broadband as well, the Obama adiminstration’s Internet access programs could actually have an impact.