About a third of all Americans still lack broadband access to the Internet. At its Digital Inclusion Summit, held Tuesday in Washington, D.C., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided a preview of its upcoming National Broadband Plan (NBP) to provide high-speed Internet access to the estimated 93 million people in the U.S. without it. The plan, mandated by Congress last year as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aims to increase home broadband use to 90 percent of the population by 2020.

The NBP—set to be delivered to Congress on March 17—will recommend a three-part National Digital Literacy Program that includes a Digital Literacy Corps, a one-time investment to bolster the Internet-access capacity of libraries and community centers, and an online skills portal for free, basic digital skills training.

The proposed Digital Literacy Corps is expected to operate much like volunteer civil-service groups AmeriCorps and Senior Corps, mobilizing hundreds of digital ambassadors in local communities across the country, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said at Tuesday's event. "This is about neighbors helping neighbors get online," she said. "The Corps can target vulnerable communities with below-average adoption rates like low-income housing developments, rural towns, tribal lands, and areas populated primarily by racial and ethnic minorities."

Broadband adoption rates are much lower among people with low incomes, those with disabilities, Hispanics, those living in rural areas, African-Americans and the elderly, according to the FCC's Broadband Service Capability Survey published in December. The survey, which sampled more than 5,000 U.S. adults, indicated that none of these populations had more than 65 percent of people using broadband. The survey also found that, among the 13 million children between the ages of five and 17 who do not have broadband at home, six million are either Hispanic or African American.

"The number one reason people cite for being offline is cost," Clyburn said. "Some might be in the position of having to choose between paying for basic necessities or paying for broadband, while others might not see the value of broadband relative to other things they could pay for like cable TV." Other significant barriers to broadband adoption include lack of online skills, and lack of understanding about the relevance of broadband applications, with issues for people with disabilities cutting across and beyond those barriers.

A key component of offering cheaper broadband Internet access will be increasing consumers' options for getting the service. Google has been very active in this area, boasting last month that it's planning to build and test its own ultra high-speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the U.S. that will deliver Internet speeds more than 100 times faster than any services offered by cable or phone companies to date. Google will be providing competitive services in those locations, which the company will announce later this year.

During a February meeting about the NBP, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski listed a number of goals for the plan, including the need to equip "every classroom in every school in America" with a broadband connection capable of online learning and remote tutoring. Genachowski said the plan should also provide "every job seeker in America" with access to online job postings and online job training through a high-speed connection at the local public library or other community institution. Other goals of the NBP should include a strategy for giving "every hospital, clinic, and first responder in America" a broadband connection that medical staff can use to send and receive images and records, ensuring every home in U.S. has access to the smart grid, and offering government data and services online, the chairman said.

The FCC will hold an open commission meeting on March 16 during which it will present the formal NBP, one day before it's sent to Congress.

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