Cheap Internet for Low-Income American Familes
September 20, 2011 5:32 PM   Subscribe

"Internet Essentials" is a $10/month internet plan available to any family with one child eligible for free lunches at American public schools.

Any family with at least one child who qualifies for the free lunch program at public schools can subscribe to a low-speed (1.5Mbps) Comcast Internet connection for $9.95 a month. Comcast guarantees that it won't raise the price and offers the plan without equipment rental or activation fees. Subscribers also cannot have "an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment," and they can't have had Comcast Internet in the last 90 days.

[The] Internet Essentials program was also a part of the conditions under which [Comcast] was allowed to buy NBC earlier this year. The company pledged to reach 2.5 million low income households with high speed Internet for less than $10 a month, and to sell some sort of computer for $150 or less.
posted by modernnomad (108 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
How does that speed compare to standard broadband?
posted by Brocktoon at 5:42 PM on September 20, 2011


This is a great idea! At this point, the internet needs to just be a public utility, and I don't think I'm being a Pollyanna when I wonder if this could be a step towards that. I just hope that the right-wingers don't try to lump highish-speed Internet access for the poor together with the "findings" of the Heritage Foundation's poverty survey, because that would be a real jerk move on their par--ahhh, who am I kidding? Of course they will. They've probably got the talking points in circulation already, in time for the Sunday morning political-affairs shows.
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:45 PM on September 20, 2011 [9 favorites]


You know, it's a nice idea and all...

But if you have one child, your annual income to quality for free lunches is just over $14,000 dollars.

How many families with a child in school with an income of $14K in a year can find a way to scrape out the cost of even a cheap computer plus a recurring bill for this kind of thing?

It looks so nice on paper, but in actuality, it all feels like fake charity in the name of capitalism.

Let's fund a government program to GIVE families who qualify for free lunch internet and a cheap computer. That's what we should be doing. That's what a civil society does -- takes care of the least advantaged amongst us by pooling the resources of the rest of us.

This... is just a corporation hoping they've discovered a new consumer niche they can market to and use to hold up for public acclaim without actually any sacrifice at all.
posted by hippybear at 5:46 PM on September 20, 2011 [50 favorites]


This is really great, but I especially love this "low-speed (1.5Mbps)." I sniff with nostalgia when I think about how excited I was the day I bought a 24000 baud modem, which was 10X faster than what I had been using.

Brocktoon, that speed is about half of what I get with my current provider for just under 40 bux USD.
posted by TheTingTangTong at 5:48 PM on September 20, 2011


How does that speed compare to standard broadband?

I'm routinely pulling 5 Mbps on my wireless connection to Roadrunner, and 1.5 Mbps is about three times faster than the 56 kbps dialup connection we limped along with in the pre-broadband days. So not too bad, methinks.
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:48 PM on September 20, 2011


oops. Meant to link to http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/governance/notices/iegs/IEGs11-12.pdf.

How does that speed compare to standard broadband?

It compares somewhat to DSL, I think. We don't get nearly what we're advertised by CenturyLink as what we SHOULD be getting (typically tops out at 300mbps down, and something undetermined up)... but 1.5K would be 5x that, I think.
posted by hippybear at 5:48 PM on September 20, 2011


They won't notice the insurgency as much if it's on a low bandwidth government cheese connection. I say (quietly) go go go.
posted by isopraxis at 5:50 PM on September 20, 2011


What about this part: "to sell some sort of computer for $150 or less"

This whole deal just seems pretty weird and/or wrong in several ways, but I am curious about the cheap computer bit - how do they plan to do that?
posted by davidmsc at 5:51 PM on September 20, 2011


This... is just a corporation hoping they've discovered a new consumer niche they can market to and use to hold up for public acclaim without actually any sacrifice at all.

It's amazing (but not surprising) that they're seeking public acclaim for something they are required to do by their agreement with the government.
posted by grouse at 5:51 PM on September 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


This... is just a corporation hoping they've discovered a new consumer niche they can market to and use to hold up for public acclaim without actually any sacrifice at all.

This isn't entirely voluntary on Comcast's part. It's part of the agreement they made when they wanted to buy out NBC (or whatever corporate Tetris that's happening).
Though Comcast no doubt loves children and cares deeply about the digital divide, its Internet Essentials program was also a part of the conditions under which it was allowed to buy NBC earlier this year. The company pledged to reach 2.5 million low income households with high speed Internet for less than $10 a month, and to sell some sort of computer for $150 or less.
But I agree with your suspicions... I don't trust Comcast any further than I could throw every plant aspect of the company.
posted by codacorolla at 5:52 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Sorry for the double post, but this seems like the sort of half-assed "compromise", and third way bullshit that so many politicians are keen on offering. Instead of making bold movements with your legislative powers to improve the lives of the poor, you concede the battle before it's even started by giving the corporations everything they want and actually getting very little in return.

But perhaps my cynicism is unfounded, and this will be a huge success in bridging the racial and economic digital divide.
posted by codacorolla at 5:54 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


1.5 Mbps is about three times faster than the 56 kbps dialup connection we limped along with in the pre-broadband days. So not too bad, methinks.

Um, 1.5 megabits/sec is about 27 times faster than 56 kilobites/sec. So a bit better than that. And in my experience, 1.5 megabits/sec is low-to-mid range DSL. You can, eg, stream Netflix and Youtube decently, so this is not a terrible deal at all, so long as they aren't evil about how they actually implement it.
posted by jcreigh at 5:56 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


It'd be nice if there were a way for people to pay into a charitable pool to sponsor subscriptions.
posted by crunchland at 5:59 PM on September 20, 2011


This whole deal just seems pretty weird and/or wrong in several ways, but I am curious about the cheap computer bit - how do they plan to do that?

I saw in an AskMe earlier this week that you can get a new desktop for a hundred bucks, so it seems possible.
posted by Lorin at 6:01 PM on September 20, 2011


Wow. From now on whenever I start thinking I'm too cynical, I'll pop on over to Metafilter and read some comments. Some of you make Michael Moore look like Michael Savage.
posted by Crotalus at 6:10 PM on September 20, 2011 [6 favorites]


Maybe Facebook or Google (or MetaFilter for that matter) should pitch in too, because most of what people create on the internet ends up monetized in one way or another.
posted by AlsoMike at 6:11 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Will people be able to hook up LANs and Wiis and connect smartphones wirelessly and stuff, or will the low-cost internet connection be limited to the Comcast PC?
posted by box at 6:17 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


My low-income household is still dialing up at 28.8kbps. We'd get broadband but they keep on saying "next year". Basically, my road is too poor and long for it to be worth it to them.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:18 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I saw in an AskMe earlier this week that you can get a new desktop for a hundred bucks, so it seems possible.

Those aren't new -- they're refurbished off-lease. They're perfectly good computers for browsing the Internet! But they're a few years old, definitely not new, and they don't include monitors.

But yeah, a basic computer to access the Internet doesn't cost a whole lot.
posted by mendel at 6:19 PM on September 20, 2011


From now on whenever I start thinking I'm too cynical, I'll pop on over to Metafilter and read some comments.

You think it's cynical to point out that a corporation's vaunted service for the poor was actually created not out of the goodness of its heart, but because it is required to do so by the government?

It's as if they were sentenced to 200 hours of community service and then later used the performed community service to bolster claims that they are stand-up citizens. There isn't a criminal conviction involved here, but the principle is the same: you don't get extra credit for doing what you were already supposed to be doing.
posted by grouse at 6:21 PM on September 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


dunkadunc: and yet, during the Clinton administration, millions of dollars were collected via extra fees in order to overcome that problem. Don't you love when funds are misdirected?
posted by hippybear at 6:21 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's as if they were sentenced to 200 hours of community service and then later used the performed community service to bolster claims that they are stand-up citizens.

"I spent 5 weeks picking up litter along the highway outside of my work hours! Aren't I awesome?!?!?"
posted by hippybear at 6:23 PM on September 20, 2011


How many families with a child in school with an income of $14K in a year can find a way to scrape out the cost of even a cheap computer plus a recurring bill for this kind of thing?

I can only speak from personal experience. Growing up, my brother and I used the free school lunch program. We lived in government housing while my mother worked a few jobs to pay the bills. We had food stamps and ADC to pay for our food and clothing and incidentals.

But I also had access to a computer in my home starting in 1980. All of the machines were hand-me-downs from various members of the family, so I was typically a generation behind, but that didn't bother a little kid who had no other exposure to technology. My first computer was an AIM-65 as I had a friend who's father was an engineer at Rockwell Collins. By the time I was in high school, I had an IBM PC and saved up my birthday money/grandparent money to buy my first modem, a Hayes 120bps external.

Had they offered a data plan for the internet (or the internet at all) at that time, I figure my mom would have been able to afford the 10.00 a month.
posted by thanotopsis at 6:23 PM on September 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


Some of you make Michael Moore look like Michael Savage.

Dude, I make Michael Stipe look like Michael Milken.
posted by Trurl at 6:26 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Meanwhile: Finland makes broadband access a legal right
posted by Trurl at 6:28 PM on September 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I probably should have included this info in the FPP as a way of helping to ground the discussion, but didn't know it off the top of my head as I am not from the US. Anyway, some quick research indicates that the "National School Lunch Programme" is open to students from families with incomes at or below 130% of the national poverty line. For a family of 4, that level is currently deemed to be an annual income of $28 665. [source].
posted by modernnomad at 6:29 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Had they offered a data plan for the internet (or the internet at all) at that time, I figure my mom would have been able to afford the 10.00 a month.

How do you know? Were you that privy to your family finances at that age?
posted by hippybear at 6:30 PM on September 20, 2011


($28 665 is 130% of the 2011 poverty line in the US, meaning any family with an income above that will not be eligible for the "Internet Essentials" service).
posted by modernnomad at 6:30 PM on September 20, 2011


I had a 1.5Mbit/s connection until last month. You can do everything but HD video without pain (until jr discovers file sharing).
posted by zippy at 6:31 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of you make Michael Moore look like Michael Savage.

Dude, I make Michael Stipe look like Michael Milken.


I make Michael Jordan look like Michael Weston.
posted by dirigibleman at 6:31 PM on September 20, 2011


But if you have one child, your annual income to quality for free lunches is just over $14,000 dollars.
I don't think that's right. I think it's by household size, not by number of children, so $14,000 would be for a child who lived alone. (And I doubt that's very many children, for obvious reasons.) For a family of 2 it's $19,000, and for a family of four it's about $29,000. Still not very much money, but it's not as low as $14,000.
posted by craichead at 6:33 PM on September 20, 2011


My family shelled out around that much (probably more?) for AOL dial up back in 2001, and we seemed to get by ok. Though we always wished for a cheaper option. The computer we had was a hand me down from an aunt.
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 6:34 PM on September 20, 2011


It's not all that hard to qualify for free lunch, at least here in LA--you don't have to submit IRS forms, pay stubs or anything else. And if the internet is a public utility, that means the Feds control it. No thanks.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:35 PM on September 20, 2011


Internet access would be cheaper for everyone if the FCC took some steps toward creating more competition among ISPs, instead of bribing them with mergers that pose net neutrality problems.
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 6:59 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I just ran an online speed test:

DL: 2304 Kb/s
UL: 373 Kb/s
Latency: 58 ms

This is a hardwired connection on a $30/mo AT&T DSL plan. How does that compare to a $10 1.5 Mps plan?
posted by Brocktoon at 7:01 PM on September 20, 2011


My son was playing TF2 in another room at the time, if it matters. :P
posted by Brocktoon at 7:02 PM on September 20, 2011


How many families [who qualify for free school lunches] can find a way to scrape out the cost of even a cheap computer plus a recurring bill for this kind of thing?

Many. I was one of them.

I and other poor parents I knew were given old computers (resale value $0) by people they knew who had upgraded. Even fifteen years ago. Anybody (who has a home, a phone, and electricity) who wants a shitty old computer can pretty much find one.

This is a good thing, and will make poor children's lives better, when many, many things are primarily online -- college applications, job applications, bills, teacher contact, etc.

I'm all for cynicism, but this right here is an unmitigated good.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 7:05 PM on September 20, 2011 [8 favorites]


I think we'll see more advances in Internet access from Google's research and fios deployment, but this might be a good stopgap. The program's effectiveness will depend on the ability of social workers to integrate Comcast's program into their checklists of services to help poor families obtain.
posted by michaelh at 7:09 PM on September 20, 2011


Would be better if they didn't make this dependent upon having children. What about the adults out there who are not parents that need access to the internet for essentials like applying for jobs? There are many low-income people who could possibly improve their lives with this service.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:16 PM on September 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


I'm all for cynicism, but this right here is an unmitigated good.

Being thrown a bone by a monopoly can't help but leave a sour taste in the mouth. Still, if it gets more Americans connected, it's a plus.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:16 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


My low-income household is still dialing up at 28.8kbps. We'd get broadband but they keep on saying "next year". Basically, my road is too poor and long for it to be worth it to them.

Not so low income, though the three of us making up this household are all either self-employed or a few bucks over Oregon Minimum Wage. We too live with dial-up (I'd kill to actually get a real 28.8kbps connection) and the chances of Comcast or any other broadband provider making it up our dead-end rural road are close to nil. I'd love it if rural folks were added into the mix with low-income.
posted by jgaiser at 7:17 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I and other poor parents I knew were given old computers (resale value $0) by people they knew who had upgraded. Even fifteen years ago. Anybody (who has a home, a phone, and electricity) who wants a shitty old computer can pretty much find one.

This depends greatly on who you know. If most of the people you know aren't in the sort of financial situation to be upgrading computers, then there's the issue. I grew up with a single mom on disability and did not get my first actual computer until I was a college sophomore. I spent many a late night nd afternoon working in the computer labs and having to travel back home, since I was a commuter student. It was an old, outdated 386 even then, handed down from the office my aunt worked at.

I wasn't able to afford my own new computer until I was 20 and a college senior. And that was after a long time of careful saving from a workstudy job.
posted by cmgonzalez at 7:19 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Being thrown a bone by a monopoly can't help but leave a sour taste in the mouth. Still, if it gets more Americans connected, it's a plus.

And if the city government had provided the same service for a similar cost?
posted by empath at 7:20 PM on September 20, 2011


You can pick up a cheap used computer off of Craigslist or the local GoodWill computer recycling center for $100 or so. It won't exactly be a gamer's rig but it'll be good enough to use an internet connection.
posted by octothorpe at 7:24 PM on September 20, 2011


What's the bandwidth cap?
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 7:30 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


1.5 Mbps is about three times faster than the 56 kbps dialup connection we limped along with in the pre-broadband days

Actually, its almost 30x faster than 56k, not 3. Up until U-verse came by, 1.5mbps was the fastest speed I could get in DSL in my neighborhood. This was 3 years ago.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:38 PM on September 20, 2011



How do you know? Were you that privy to your family finances at that age?
posted by hippybear at 9:30 PM on 9/20


poor kids are almost always privy to their family finances; it's one of those markers of poverty.

We also had hand-me down computers; a Vic 20, then a Commodore, then a PC. We were always a generation behind, which was just fine since that meant we missed ME entirely.
posted by jb at 7:43 PM on September 20, 2011 [16 favorites]


Making Internet access available to the young and the poor is a very special kind of education, the kind that used to be the province of monasteries and universities. It is in a very real sense teaching people how to reason for themselves. How in the world can anyone argue with that?
posted by infinitewindow at 7:43 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's not all that hard to qualify for free lunch, at least here in LA--you don't have to submit IRS forms, pay stubs or anything else.

Citation please?

And if the internet is a public utility, that means the Feds control it. No thanks.

Most public utilities are provided at the local level. Do you have any examples where public utilities are federally provided? I can't think of one off the top of my head, and would welcome having my knowledge expanded.
posted by hippybear at 7:43 PM on September 20, 2011


And if the city government had provided the same service for a similar cost?

To perhaps step back and put this in some context, some years ago, Philadelphia tried to provide wi-fi service throughout the city, to be freely available to all citizens regardless of their economic situation. Verizon then stepped in and sued the state of Pennsylvania so that no municipality can ever provide that kind of service to its citizens ever again, even if such a service is clearly in the public interest to be available. Not only that, Verizon poisoned the well so much that Philadelphia never really got to install this service for its taxpayers.

So I think some skepticism about collusion between a private and public entities like Comcast and the FCC is healthy, even if this looks good on the surface, or might even be a net positive at this point in time. Who knows, Comcast might even use this as a bargaining chip in getting rid of the unprofitable bugbear of net neutrality, one day. Beware of making deals with the proverbial devil.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:44 PM on September 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


You can pick up a cheap used computer off of Craigslist

How do I buy a computer off of Craigslist without having a computer + internet connection to start with?
posted by Strange Interlude at 7:54 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I sure was wondering why there has been no further talk of free, publicly avaiable WiFi in my town. Damn Verizon!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 7:55 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


Some of you guys are way too cynical. The government mandate that Comcast offer subsidized internet to poor families is wonderful news because:

1. Poor people get affordable internet

2. We can keep on hating Comcast

Win-win.
posted by LarryC at 7:55 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I wonder if the standard is merely receiving free lunches, or actually being verifiably eligible for them. Free and reduced lunch is spectacularly fraud-ridden, and Comcast might be more protective of its shareholders than the USDA is of the taxpayers.
posted by MattD at 7:55 PM on September 20, 2011


How do I buy a computer off of Craigslist without having a computer + internet connection to start with?

Public libraries usually have computers and internet available for use.
posted by orange swan at 7:57 PM on September 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting to see that so many of us here haven't ever been poor.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 7:59 PM on September 20, 2011 [7 favorites]


What kind of job, you ask? "I was recently in Indiana to announce the creation of 100,000 new jobs at customer service centers. These workers aren’t just talking on the phone any more. They are processing transactions; accessing records and information; e-mailing, live text chatting, and managing accounts. These activities don't require advanced degrees, but they do require broadband and digital literacy."

This isn't exactly "you can do anything you can dream!" rhetoric
No kidding.
How many families with a child in school with an income of $14K in a year can find a way to scrape out the cost of even a cheap computer plus a recurring bill for this kind of thing?
A couple of years old computer is probably pretty cheap these days. I bought an old desktop for someone for $40 a month or so ago. The place was GIVING CRTs away and no one would take them. They would also sell 18" 4:3 LCDs for $30 if you hung around asked for a price reduction. I got two really nice dells there and now I've got a triple monitor setup. One of them actually has better color then my center monitor, a 23" LCD I bought new a few years ago.

1.5Mbps kind of sucks though. It's not fast enough to stream HD youtube videos. If I were king we'd all have 10 gigabit fiber in every home, provided by the government.
And if the internet is a public utility, that means the Feds control it. No thanks.
This is the line that all the anti net-neutrality nutbars went with a couple of months ago (who seem totally unaware of the fact they lost). The fed already regulates the internet.
So my already too high cable bill is helping to subsidize the pornography surfing capabilities of poor people. Awesome.
What a disgusting attitude. Poor people deserve porn just as much as anyone else. Maybe you should be asking why your cable bill is as high as it is. It has a lot to do with the fact you can only get service from one or two providers.
Verizon then stepped in and sued the state of Pennsylvania so that no municipality can ever provide that kind of service to its citizens ever again, even if such a service is clearly in the public interest to be available. Not only that, Verizon poisoned the well so much that Philadelphia never really got to install this service for its taxpayers.
Actually I think they carved out an exception for Philly. They were more worried about municipalities all over the state doing it. It's kind of mind-boggling though. Actually making it illegal for small towns to get together and do something for themselves.
posted by delmoi at 8:00 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


It is in a very real sense teaching people how to reason for themselves. How in the world can anyone argue with that?

At least one major US political party, one major cable "news" station and dozens of radio talk shows manage to find a way on a regular basis.
posted by darkstar at 8:00 PM on September 20, 2011


Maybe there will be more grown-up-poor MeFites in a few years thanks to this initiative, Threeway Handshake.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:01 PM on September 20, 2011


poor kids are almost always privy to their family finances; it's one of those markers of poverty.

This is true.

It's not all that hard to qualify for free lunch, at least here in LA--you don't have to submit IRS forms, pay stubs or anything else.
Citation please?


In my experience, yes, they make the application process easy -- they send it home with the kids, a one-page form, you fill it out, attach proof of income, and send it back to school with the kids. But you do need proof: your AFDC/CalWORKS/welfare letter, an unemployment benefit letter, or pay stubs.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:03 PM on September 20, 2011


Maybe there will be more grown-up-poor MeFites in a few years thanks to this initiative, Threeway Handshake.

Republican policies will see to that.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 8:03 PM on September 20, 2011


This is a great thing, but I bet their Internet is quicker than the Internet I pay for.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:04 PM on September 20, 2011


[trolling removed - take the night off please.]
posted by jessamyn at 8:06 PM on September 20, 2011


Actually I think they carved out an exception for Philly. They were more worried about municipalities all over the state doing it.

You're right: Philly was the exception. Which looking back was such an arrogant thing for a private company to dictate to a government. It is bad form on the Internet to call it fascism, but it sure is corporatism, to have public policy dictated by a private entity.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:08 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


pH Indicating Socks: your comment about providing proof goes directly against the assertion I was asking for a citation to back up.

There's a vast difference between "they make the application process easy" and "you don't have to submit IRS forms, pay stubs, or anything else".
posted by hippybear at 8:10 PM on September 20, 2011


Well spotted, Hippybear. And?
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:15 PM on September 20, 2011


pH Indicating Socks: and.... you provided a counter example without actual citation, and aren't the person I was addressing when I asked for a citation in the first place?

What do you mean, "and"? You backed up my point, and I was underscoring that you did that.
posted by hippybear at 8:19 PM on September 20, 2011


Also, I hope that Comcast decides (either through government prodding, or reasonable good sense) to give the same benefit to low income people receiving medicare and social security, but who don't qualify for the free and reduced lunch qualification. Teaching digital literacy and providing access to the home bound means that they can actually fill out the digital forms that many federal and municipal organizations are moving online as a cost cutting measure, not to mention the basic human right to access the 'Net.
posted by codacorolla at 8:20 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


I volunteer/am friends with a number of super low income families. Like families consisting of a mom and 4 kids with an annual income of... yeah... solidly in "free lunch" territory, here in Northern California.

Coming up with a cheap computer is the easy part. There are tons of cast-off computers, wipe Windows XP off 'em, put Linux on 'em, mostly to keep anyone from installing Limewire or some similar P2P system by which they'll totally virus infect it in seconds. However, did y'all notice the part where they can't have any outstanding debts to Comcast? Yeah, that is the hard part.
posted by straw at 8:24 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm all for cynicism, but this right here is an unmitigated good.

Maybe. Maybe not. This is an area I study when I'm not working here at MetaFilter and the jury is still out on whether subsidy programs like this make much of a difference outside of the feelgood "hey they're helping" vibe and the tax writeoffs that Comcast gets.

When I'm not working here I'm helping teach people to use a computer, introducing them to how the Internet works, teaching them to use a mouse. A cheap computer and cheap broadband are, in many cases [60-70%, the IRS did a study, you can read it] not going to help people with the hurdles they're facing. Estimates are that 20%-ish of Americans don't use the Internet and, unlike previous years, in the past few years the rate of adoption is slowing, not increasing. This means that most people who wanted to get online have already gotten online. And I'm firmly in straw's camp, finding people who are online-curious and who have not already mixed it up possibly with Comcast is going to be really difficult, especially if Comcast is the only game in town.

And studies have found that dropping a computer into a household that hasn't had one isn't really a good way to help kids with schoolwork in any real way. Low income kids with new-to-them computers don't miraculously start doing better in school. Low in come kids with new-to-them computers and parents (or other concerned guardians) are the kids who, sometimes, do better in these situations. So not saying it won't happen just saying that in other studies, it hasn't, or not demonstrably. And that's the thing that sort of bugs me with this and other similar initiatives.

There are studies that indicate that what people need isn't just computers and broadband, it's classes and being in a culture where the people around them are using this technology, It's being able to get someone who can help you fix your computer. It's being in a tech rich environment where adults also know how to use technology or have the opportunity to learn at low or no cost. It's having someone be available to help you [from within your community or professionally like a librarian] the first times you're trying things out.

I know people want to help and I understand why this is the way they go about it, but giving someone a computer and broadband when they don't have a support system in place is sometimes setting them up to have an actual worse and backsliding tech experience than if they didn't have a computer and had to learn 60 minutes at a time at he library or at school.

Big companies like Verizon and Comcast are screwed in the not-too-long term if they can't do much about broadband uptake in the next few years. Verizon literally sold their lines in VT, ME and NH because they had made a pledge to get 80% of Vermonters online by 2012 (as part of a deal with the government they made that gave them some good licensing terms, I'm told) and they were clearly going to miss their mark. And this isn't because their broadband is too expensive, it's mostly because people who don't have it at this point don't want it (some estimates say 90% of the people currently online aren't interested in getting online). And this is an impediment to being able to deliver services, notably government services like forms and whatnot but also for-sale services like streaming whatnot. Some things we don't all get until everyone can use them. Watch the IRS try to phase out paper forms and think about how easy other stuff is going to be. It's a complex weighty problem, and while this is probably going to be helpful a little bit, it's not addressing as large a part of the real problem as its press releases claim that it will.
posted by jessamyn at 8:42 PM on September 20, 2011 [24 favorites]


MetaFilter: 90% of the people currently online aren't interested in getting online
posted by hippybear at 8:48 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Anybody spotted what the upload speed is yet? 1.5 down is fine for most stuff.
posted by Chuckles at 8:48 PM on September 20, 2011


I'm sorry please don't hurt me
posted by hippybear at 8:49 PM on September 20, 2011


Not having a computer was a MAJOR stumbling block for my nieces. I knew my sister had an old out of date computer, and my oldest niece was just getting to the age where she'd be using a computer in school. I figured, they'd be ok, the school would teach them how to use the computer (since it was pretty much a requirement for school.) and they'd learn that way.

Nope, 'fraid not. They were given one class a week for an hour to learn how to use a computer, and meanwhile, they were actually required to use the computer to take tests and submit them to teachers. My niece, who didn't know a computer from a speak and spell (turns out my sister had trashed the old out of date computer), was actually -afraid- to use it. She just didn't understand anything about it, so she waited till the end of the tests without doing them and eventually failed.

After finding this out, I stepped in and hit ebay, buying them a $100 IBM thinkcenter (2.8ghz, 1gig RAM if anyone want the specs), and some kid's computer games. Basic stuff, just how to actually MOVE and CLICK a mouse. The eldest has finally taken to it, and the youngest uses it too, so she should have plenty of experience and no problems since she has been using one since a much younger age. They still don't have internet access though, no kind of affordable broadband is available where they are, but they could probably go for this program. I myself pay 90 dollars per month for 1.5 down. It's all that's available in my neck of the woods.

I understand the cynical attitudes about major corporations (they -are- being forced to do this and it's a damn shame) but don't knock this stuff until you've almost seen somebody nearly get left behind because of it.
posted by FireballForever at 8:55 PM on September 20, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's the application: http://cafe-la.lausd.net/sites/default/files/Meal%20Application%2011-12%209.7.11.pdf

No proof, other than this signed statement, is required.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:59 PM on September 20, 2011


I understand the cynical attitudes about major corporations (they -are- being forced to do this and it's a damn shame) but don't knock this stuff until you've almost seen somebody nearly get left behind because of it.

Let me say that I'm not against this, per se, and I respect your personal experience with the digital divide, but I worked in a rural community that may have left hundreds of kids in the technological dust because Comcast looked at their balance sheet and decided that broadband just wasn't profitable to run wire out to the boondocks.

How much new wire is Comcast running to the digital deserts? Here's the training that Comcast offers, but how easy is that site to use for non-computer-literate people? I typed in the zip of the digital desert that I worked in, and there's currently nothing being offered.

I'm suspicious of this because of the Gates' foundation. It did terrific work in expanding Internet access to libraries (the system I worked in benefited), but after the issue of the digital divide went by the wayside in the early 2000s, and instead of getting something like an Internet version of the Rural Electrification Act should have acted, instead we get a half-measure from an NGO with no real assurances that it wouldn't be abandoned in years to come - which, by and large, it was. The Gates' foundation considered its job done and moved on to more interesting realms. Meanwhile there's no public will for the same work to be done on a federal level because a half-measure has already been implemented by someone else.

So I think this definitely will bridge the digital divide in some cases, but what's lost by not having this be a national priority? What's lost by trusting Comcast, who has repeatedly shown that they do not have the interest of the open Internet at heart? I'm happy to see even a half measure in dealing with digital literacy, but I'm also worried about what price we may pay in the future. The deal is done. Worrying about it now won't make Comcast back out, but may enable people in positions of power to counteract any negative repercussions that result from the deal. The worst thing that could happen, imo, is to simply dust off one's hands and consider the matter settled.
posted by codacorolla at 9:11 PM on September 20, 2011 [5 favorites]


Making broadband affordable to low-income families *is* an unmitigated good -- those who wanted it, but couldn't have it due to cost, now can have it.

Will this alone wipe out the digital divide?
No.
Will it make people who don't want to be online change their minds?
No. When you're in free-lunch territory, you're not going to say, "What the hell, it's only $10 a month."

I imagine the greatest benefit is not to the poorest of the poor, but those who are, well, as I used to say of myself, swinging by their fingernails from the underside of the middle class. Kids who use computers and the internet at school, at friends' houses, at the library, at Kinkos when they must, but are not connected at home. Those kids will get a huge boost, academically and socially.

In this, this program is like Habitat for Humanity -- it doesn't pretend to address the biggest, most intractable problems of the very poor, but gives a boost into the middle class to those who are pretty much almost there. That's not nothing.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 9:15 PM on September 20, 2011 [4 favorites]


While this is good, I'm convinced that 4G wireless technology is the way to get low income and rural homes online. One particular thing about LTE is that the cell size can be adjusted in rural areas - up to 50 miles in diameter, dramatically reducing the number of towers needed for
covering an area completely (though you'd need low frequency spectrum around 700MHz and tall towers to make it all work). Speeds will be slower (1Mb/s), and you definitely wont be getting Netflix, but that's OK, if all you want is the basic stuff - reading websites, watching a little YouTube, submitting forms, online banking and bill pay, etc.

Above people were griping about computers and technology and teaching people how to use a mouse. The internet they need has to be simpler. This is were a tablet computer (iPad, Android, Windows 8-whatever) is the far superior solution because of its simplicity - just point and tap.
posted by SirOmega at 9:23 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


How many families [who qualify for free school lunches] can find a way to scrape out the cost of even a cheap computer plus a recurring bill for this kind of thing?

Many. I was one of them.

I and other poor parents I knew were given old computers (resale value $0) by people they knew who had upgraded. Even fifteen years ago. Anybody (who has a home, a phone, and electricity) who wants a shitty old computer can pretty much find one.


Ya. My school also rents out a room to a government organization who takes in old PCs and sells them back to low-income families for the price of licensing. The workers are usually students in tech programs who need to do internships, the labor's basically free. The PCs usually vary from P4's to Pentium Ds or ocassionally Core Duos- all for $100 or less, including the monitor. So there legitimate options for functional, cheap PCs, even if they're not exactly advertised.

And while I can't give out specific, a lot more families are on free & reduced lunch than the general public thinks. One of the reasons the number's skewed is a lot of families are ashamed of having to take what's perceived as a government handout and thus reject the offering.
posted by jmd82 at 9:25 PM on September 20, 2011


The worst thing that could happen, imo, is to simply dust off one's hands and consider the matter settled.
posted by codacorolla at 12:11 AM on September 21

I should clarify, I definitely don't consider this matter settled, not by a long shot. I believe this measure is at best a bandage for a missing appendage. Much more has to be done about getting more reliable internet rolled out across this country, and at more affordable prices.
posted by FireballForever at 9:25 PM on September 20, 2011


Now that is beautiful.
posted by mitrieD at 9:46 PM on September 20, 2011


Strange Interlude wrote: How do I buy a computer off of Craigslist without having a computer + internet connection to start with

The library has computers. I believe they can even access Craigslist in most locales.
posted by wierdo at 9:48 PM on September 20, 2011


I should clarify, I definitely don't consider this matter settled, not by a long shot. I believe this measure is at best a bandage for a missing appendage. Much more has to be done about getting more reliable internet rolled out across this country, and at more affordable prices.

It seems like we basically agree. Maybe the only point of contention is that I'm less optimistic about the action beyond the bandage. I sincerely hope that I'm wrong, however.
posted by codacorolla at 9:57 PM on September 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The library has computers. I believe they can even access Craigslist in most locales.

What they often don't have, however, is someone who can tell you how Craigslist works, or how to contact someone who only has an email address as a contact point when you don't have email. The thing is complex on many levels.

And, again, I feel like to some extent I'm cleaning up after the Gates Foundation in Vermont. Many libraries got computers with grants (you got free support if you bought a PC with the grant money, no support or free software if you bought a Mac or Linux box) that they are still using, nearly ten years later. Many of those libraries didn't even get broadband until years later still, meaning that the libraries were running unpatched operating systems [the bandwidth caps will keep you from updating your operating system if you've got 4G, fyi] except in some cases where the librarian took the computer home with her to do updates because she was savvy enough to realize that it was important. Most librarians when I started working in this region of Central Vermont didn't have broadband at home and most still don't. That said, if Gates didn't cruise through Vermont it's possible some libraries might not have computers still.

Running a pilot project in Seattle has ups and downs, in any big city really. Digital divide issues in cities really are much more poverty based and language-barrier based. The people with the least connectivity are poor people and new immigrants. We know this. However, this is not true in rural areas, at all. Comcast couldn't even do their program in Vermont because most of the kids who qualify for school lunches live in locations where there is no broadband service at all and no broadband service scheduled. So, I totally get that this, what Comcast is doing, is a small part of maybe unsucking some things. But if I was making my top ten list of Shit that Would Help the Digital Divide, getting cheaper broadband to poor families would be on it, but likely not in the top five. And the only reason it rankles me is because the press release is treating this issue like it's fixing the digital divide and I think it's focusing on the wrong aspects of the problem. Folks who are into geeky reading on this topic should check out Who's Responsible for the Digital Divide? Public Perceptions and Policy Implications (pdf) which looks at the different ways people outline what the digital divide actually is and then the resultant policy outcomes of what they think will fix it.

In any case, I can sort of yammer about this forever and I don't want to be one of those "seen it" internet people who thinks everything can be picked apart and found wanting. But there are things that work, but this sort of thing is a small part of them. People can check out my recent Project post and read more about it if they skew nerdy in the same way I do.
posted by jessamyn at 10:20 PM on September 20, 2011 [11 favorites]


jessamyn, I completely agree that the problem with broadband penetration in cities is entirely different from that in rural areas and small towns. While I've occasionally been shocked at some of the places I've seen DSL service available, they're shocking because they're the exception, not the rule.

Clearly, education is important. It's been some time since one could really just experiment without any fear of irreparably breaking your OS. Stupid viruses/spyware/etc. The problem is that to help someone become fully at ease with computers, you have to teach them enough that they can fool around with things they're not completely familiar with and find what they're looking for. People who aren't comfortable trying new things aren't likely to really get how to construct a good Google search, for example.

Helping someone to that level of understanding is very difficult when they're constantly afraid they'll break something.

All that is pretty much to say it's a hard problem that has to be attacked from many angles. Expanded broadband availability is a great thing, but it doesn't mean much if there aren't any skills (or computers) in the community and no resources to learn from. Libraries would be a good source for this, but I doubt you're terribly interested in adding "computer teacher" to your list of duties.
posted by wierdo at 10:44 PM on September 20, 2011


1.5 mbs for $10 a month sounds pretty good to me. I'm paying 6 times that amount for 2 thirds of the speed in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Sydney.
posted by joannemullen at 11:37 PM on September 20, 2011


And if the internet is a public utility, that means the Feds control it. No thanks.

It's easy to get a little tipsy on the 1980's notion that the Internet is some sort of international, anarchist's paradise free of government control, especially after a few too many shots of Sterling, Gibson or Stephenson. But one can get sobered up just as quickly with a little research into how, for example, the global DNS system still works today. There are more shiny layers of Flash ads now, but peel enough away and the US government (and military) is a lot more in control than your average Facebook addict will ever realize.

Damn near the entire Internet is already under some sort of US federal control, one way or the other, and that's even if we don't count all the things implied by secret NSA and AT&T data spying rooms, and stick only to counting the things we actually know about for certain.

And if "progress" to a more open internet is your goal, the story the last decade has been about anything but.

We tolerate it because the trains and Twitter updates still run on time.
posted by rokusan at 2:48 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


after the issue of the digital divide went by the wayside in the early 2000s,

It didn't. I worked for the FCC in the summer of 2008, and let me assure you, rural broadband access was still a pressing concern, particularly for congressmen. The REA was only passed during the Roosevelt administration, a few decades after electrical power had been around. Broadband has really only been around in any serious kind of way for a decade or so.
posted by valkyryn at 2:58 AM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


Um, 1.5 megabits/sec is about 27 times faster than 56 kilobites/sec

1 megabit is 125 kilobytes, assuming 8 bits to a byte (which we can). So 1.5mbps is just over 3 times as fast as 56kBps.
posted by howfar at 4:43 AM on September 21, 2011


1 megabit is 125 kilobytes

True. But dialup runs at 56kilobits.
posted by valkyryn at 4:58 AM on September 21, 2011


True. But dialup runs at 56kilobits.

Cheers. Was all getting a bit confusing.
posted by howfar at 5:06 AM on September 21, 2011


And if the internet is a public utility, that means the Feds control it. No thanks.

Would you rather the Internet be controlled by a democratically elected government with a mandate to (ostensibly) serve the greatest public good, or controlled entirely by for-profit corporations with absolutely no interest in anything other than maximizing shareholder profit?

I much prefer the government option.
posted by Shepherd at 6:08 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]



And studies have found that dropping a computer into a household that hasn't had one isn't really a good way to help kids with schoolwork in any real way. Low income kids with new-to-them computers don't miraculously start doing better in school. Low in come kids with new-to-them computers and parents (or other concerned guardians) are the kids who, sometimes, do better in these situations. So not saying it won't happen just saying that in other studies, it hasn't, or not demonstrably. And that's the thing that sort of bugs me with this and other similar initiatives.

There are studies that indicate that what people need isn't just computers and broadband, it's classes and being in a culture where the people around them are using this technology, It's being able to get someone who can help you fix your computer. It's being in a tech rich environment where adults also know how to use technology or have the opportunity to learn at low or no cost. It's having someone be available to help you [from within your community or professionally like a librarian] the first times you're trying things out.


I have no doubt that computers do nothing to help low income kids with schoolwork. They did nothing to help *me* with school as a kid, even though I was employed working as a programmer through high school in the mid '90s and had access to internet resources none of my classmates knew about.

That second bit, about people needing access to classes and culture? Not knowing what studies you're referring to, I'm just going to assume it applies more to adults and teens than young kids. By the time you need classes to learn how to use a computer, you may be too old to really internalize how computers work.

Young kids probably don't need that guided learning and computer culture as much. The awesomeness of the glowing screen and all those buttons is obvious to a curious kid. Even if it's not helping with schoolwork, it's hugely important to get a computer in front of them when they're young enough to enjoy experimenting on their own. Just futzing around with games or social media sites will help them internalize how stuff works. In fact, I think you need relatively unguided learning to truly 'get' computers.

I was born in 1978 and grew up around computers. It was the period just before ubiquitous PCs in middle class households. Parents weren't showing their kids how to use computers, because they themselves didn't understand them. Adults and kids in those early adopter households were on the same playing field. The adults generally *hated* the computer and probably only had it because it was forced on them by work. Even among my nerdy friends, a lot of them didn't touch a PC outside the school lab until they were in high school. So some of my peers today grew up playing with computers and others grew up being taught about computers.

There's something fundamentally different in how the two groups use their machines now as adults. The ones who weren't playing with computers in grade/middle school have trouble figuring things out on their own. They are not self-motivated learners. It's painful to watch them. I can tell you a dozen ways to launch an application, juggle windows, select text, etc. They know *one* way to do everything. There's absolutely no fluidity in how they interact with the computer. It's the sort of painful fumbling you see when someone who has never touched a hammer tries to drive a nail, except they do it for 8 hours a day.

My 4 year old will spend all day playing Minecraft if I let him, and in the process has already figured out the mouse and keyboard and enough letters and numbers to get him by. He's just getting to the point where I'm only giving him basic guidance to help him when he asks questions. Want to cheat at the game to get fun stuff in your inventory? Well, OK, Sam. Take this big block of text from the editor get it into this terminal window running the server software. And he does. He intuitively knows he can drag and drop selected text to move it between windows. MOST ADULTS DON'T KNOW THAT. It won't improve his test scores or grades, but it'll be a huge leg up on the competition once he's expected to be any sort of productive.
posted by pjaust at 7:00 AM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Our office pays $450 per month for a 1.5 mbps T1.

Yeah.
posted by odinsdream at 7:51 AM on September 21, 2011


Free and reduced lunch is spectacularly fraud-ridden

Um, what? Really? You think people have complex scams in place to get free, crappy lunches for their kids? To save $5 a day? That's like, $200 a year! How do I get in on this?! That's bank, baby!
posted by Brocktoon at 8:37 AM on September 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Our office pays $450 per month for a 1.5 mbps T1.

These kids aren't going to have an SLA, though.
posted by empath at 8:43 AM on September 21, 2011


democratically elected government with a mandate to (ostensibly) serve the greatest public good,

But we in the US don't elect bureaucrats whose main mission is to keep their own departments and jobs going. An appointed internet Czar isn't answerable to anyone except the pol who appointed him/her, and that pol's chief interest is to keep his/her own job. Nothing about that scenario is attractive.

School lunches applications might be easy to con, but really, what's the hurt? Kids get to eat bad food, which is better than nothing, I guess. I wonder if families could do better if just given the $$ and left to their own devices.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:17 AM on September 21, 2011


This whole deal just seems pretty weird and/or wrong in several ways, but I am curious about the cheap computer bit - how do they plan to do that?

I saw in an AskMe earlier this week that you can get a new desktop for a hundred bucks, so it seems possible.


One of my favorite non-profits in the country is Free Geek, which allows volunteers, mostly low-income teens, people recently released from prison, and other under-served populations - to join a program where they build new computers from old computers that are donated (which also helps with the electronic waste problem). They get to learn about how computers work and how to repair them, and after they build four they get to take home the fifth one - all for free.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:54 AM on September 21, 2011


At this point, the internet needs to just be a public utility

Amen. Kill the golden goose and make a standard rate/usage level available to all citizens (well, those who live in cities). Once we get that standard rate/usage level to its proper place, we can kill off the phone companies too.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:25 AM on September 21, 2011


Just to weigh in as a counterpoint to all the Comcast hating...the company already had a large community volunteer program in place called Comcast Cares. The employees take a certain amount of days per year and do work for charities in their backyards. The charity I volunteer for has benefited from many of those days...a new playground, painted classrooms, landscaping...so while I realize the "Essentials" program was merger-mandated, it's not like they didn't do anything before.
posted by Kokopuff at 11:43 AM on September 21, 2011


Amen. Kill the golden goose and make a standard rate/usage level available to all citizens (well, those who live in cities). Once we get that standard rate/usage level to its proper place, we can kill off the phone companies too.

The problem with that is that it will stay there forever if you let the government (or a monopoly) run it. Just look at the stagnation from AT&T up until it was split up.

Government is good at providing a static service that doesn't need a lot of innovation, but internet is still impacted by Moore's Law, etc, and it would be economic suicide to lock ourselves where ever we are now.

Just break up local cable monopolies, that's really all that needs to be done.
posted by empath at 12:02 PM on September 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


empath wrote: The problem with that is that it will stay there forever if you let the government (or a monopoly) run it. Just look at the stagnation from AT&T up until it was split up.

Stagnation? Stagnation from the telephone company is what we got from about 1984 to 1996 when DSL finally started to become more widely available. I can't say whether or not we'd have seen more or less progress had the monopoly been broken, but there was a lot of progress being made. Video phones, ISDN, the list goes on. Sadly, after the breakup, deployment of those advanced services basically stopped in the face of a renewed desire for earnings growth.

What was stagnant was the price of long distance telephone calls. I'm somewhat torn on that, actually. It's nice to be able to call any phone in the country for no extra charge (or a penny a minute if I don't use my cellphone), but boy howdy have the rates for a POTS line skyrocketed since long distance stopped subsidizing local service.
posted by wierdo at 12:30 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I would have zero problem with my local government laying fiber, so long as it was open access, such that any ISP, video, or voice company that wanted to offer service over it was allowed to do so. The treadmill is pretty much slowing down for the end users. One gigabit is likely enough for quite some time more, and future upgrades will only require electronics upgrades, not running new wire, which is the most expensive part.
posted by wierdo at 12:33 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sadly, after the breakup, deployment of those advanced services basically stopped in the face of a renewed desire for earnings growth.

This is nuts. Before the breakup, you weren't even allowed to connect your own phone to the network. Let alone DSL or modems.
posted by empath at 12:52 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and I would have zero problem with my local government laying fiber, so long as it was open access, such that any ISP, video, or voice company that wanted to offer service over it was allowed to do so.

I'm not super against local government taking over the last mile and managing the CO's. It's a monopoly already as it is.
posted by empath at 12:55 PM on September 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath wrote: This is nuts. Before the breakup, you weren't even allowed to connect your own phone to the network. Let alone DSL or modems.

That's not true. The Carterfone decision was in 1968. The breakup happened in 1984, some 16 years later. "Deploying advanced services" does not require unapproved third party devices, anyway. It's better if they are available (yay choice), but it's not an absolute requirement.
posted by wierdo at 2:07 PM on September 21, 2011


AT&T didn't start selling phones until after the breakup.
posted by empath at 2:47 PM on September 21, 2011


empath wrote: AT&T didn't start selling phones until after the breakup

Ok. What's that got to do with the price of tea in China?
posted by wierdo at 3:23 PM on September 21, 2011


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