Obama unveils ConnectHome to get low-income households online

The pilot program will launch in 27 cities and one tribal nation and reach more than 275,000 low-income households. Some communities will receive broadband connections at no charge.

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Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Don Reisinger
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

President Barack Obama inspects a piece of fiber-optic cable during a January visit to an Iowa utilty as he promoted his early plan for increasing access to affordable high-speed broadband across the nation. Pool, Getty Images

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced a broad initiative that aims to provide high-speed Internet service to low-income households.

Dubbed ConnectHome, the new initiative will bring high-speed broadband access to over 275,000 low-income households across the US. According to the White House, the pilot program will launch in 27 cities including New York, Boston and Seattle, as well as the Choctaw Tribal Nation in Oklahoma. The effort will initially connect nearly 200,000 children to the Web, according to the White House.

The pilot program is part of the Obama administration's continuing effort to close the digital divide, ensuring that everyone, regardless of income, has access to high-speed Internet service. The president in March created the Broadband Opportunity Council, comprising 25 federal agencies and departments charged with giving more people access to broadband, which Obama sees as a critical component for US economic growth and competitiveness.

According to the Pew Research Center, 92 percent of households with incomes between $100,000 to $150,000 have broadband access, but less than half of households below the $25,0000 income level can tap into high-speed Internet. The American Library Association, which applauded the president's move on Wednesday, said 5 million households with school-age children do not have high-speed Internet service.

"While nearly two-thirds of households in the lowest-income quintile own a computer, less than half have a home internet subscription," the White House said in a statement on Wednesday. "While many middle-class U.S. students go home to Internet access, allowing them to do research, write papers, and communicate digitally with their teachers and other students, too many lower-income children go unplugged every afternoon when school ends. This 'homework gap' runs the risk of widening the achievement gap, denying hardworking students the benefit of a technology-enriched education."

The US government has been actively seeking ways to connect more low-income households to the Web. In June, the Federal Communications Commission voted to advance a proposal that would allow qualifying households to use their $9.25-per-month Lifeline subsidy on either phone or broadband service.

"Broadband has gone from being a luxury to a necessity," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said at the time. "But the fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans earning less than $25,000 a year don't have broadband at home."

For its ConnectHome program, the US government is partnering with several organizations in the private and public sectors. Google Fiber, for instance, will provide free monthly home Internet service to select public housing communities in Atlanta, Durham, North Carolina, Kansas City, Missouri and Nashville. Another provider, CenturyLink, is offering broadband service to HUD households in Seattle for $9.95 for the first year, increasing that monthly rate to $14.95 in the next four years. Cox Communications and Sprint, among others, will also participate.

Other companies and organizations will offer add-on services. Big-box retailer Best Buy, for instance, will provide computer training and technical support to HUD residents. The James M. Cox Foundation, a not-for-profit associated with Internet service provider Cox Communications, will provide 1,500 tablets at $30 each to students and their families in Macon, Georgia. The open-source project GitHub is offering $250,000 to help with "digital literacy," Public Broadcasting Service will produce new content for children and the American Library Association will provide on-site training.

"Librarians know from our work in communities every day that far, far too many Americans currently lack the technology access and skills to participate fully in education, employment and civic life," ALA President Sari Feldman said in a statement Wednesday. "Broadband is essential, and we are so pleased the Obama administration has made home broadband access a priority.

ConnectedHome is being funded by private industry, nonprofit organizations and local leaders, Julian Castro, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, said during a press call Wednesday. Together, they have committed to spending $70 million over the next several years, Jeff Zients, director of the White House National Economic Council, said on the call. The federal government will not be contributing money beyond the $50,000 allocated by the Department of Agriculture for broadband-related equipment deployed in the Choctaw tribal nation, Zients said. He also confirmed that the 27 local governments where the program is launching will not be required to pay for the program.

Castro said the program has been limited by design in order to show that it works.

"My hope is that it will demonstrate great results, which will provide an opportunity to help expand it," Castro said. "This is a demonstration project, and we're focused on making sure it's done right."

The agency plans to measure the success of the program in two different ways. First, it will look at the number of families who did not have broadband access before the program launched and who chose to sign up for service after the program is launched. The second measurement will be more complicated. The agency hopes it can analyze how young people who participated in the program perform academically compared to students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds that do not have access to the program.

"This is really a proof-of-concept program," Zients said. "We're trying to help as many students as we can while helping to bridge the digital divide."

President Obama will officially announce the ConnectHome initiative at an event in Durant, Oklahoma, on Wednesday. He is expected to outline the program and link it to his ConnectEd initiative, a program announced in 2013 that aims at getting 99 percent of US students in grades Kindergarten through 12 on high-speed Internet access in school and libraries within five years.

"Since the president took office, the private and public sectors have invested over $260 billion into new broadband infrastructure, and three in four Americans now use broadband at home," the White House said on Wednesday. "Thanks to smart spectrum policies and world-leading technology, fast 4G wireless broadband is now available to over 98 percent of Americans -- up from zero percent since 2009."

Update at 9:23 a.m PT: Added information from a press call about the cost of the new ConnectHome program and how success of the program will be measured.

CNET Senior Writer Marguerite Reardon contributed to this report.