Five rural telcos have worked together to propose a pilot program to improve broadband adoption among low-income Americans in rural areas. With the assistance of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association (NTCA), the carriers have filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission for program funding. Rural telcos participating in the application include three Illinois-based companies — Adams Telephone Co-operative, Madison Telephone Co. and Mid Century Telephone Cooperative – as well as Iowa-based Alpine Communications and New Mexico-based Leaco Rural Telephone.
With plans underway for transitioning today’s voice-focused high-cost Universal Service fund to focus on broadband, the FCC also is contemplating a similar transition for the low-income Lifeline portion of the Universal Service program. Back in January, the FCC announced plans to free up funding for a pilot broadband low-income program through modifications to the Lifeline program and tighter control of disbursements.
In April the commission announced that it would make $25 million available for the pilot program. The commission said that any pilot program proposals should not simply focus on affordability but should also include a plan for increasing digital literacy.
The proposal from the rural telcos appears to address both of these goals. According to a release issued Tuesday by the NTCA, the application includes a plan to work with the non-profit organization Connected Nation to provide low-cost computers to consumers who complete free online digital literacy training.
In addition, the applicants propose to examine “how and to what extent broadband adoption by low-income consumers in rural areas might be driven or deterred” by various service and price packages. Among the options to be tested are flat and sliding scale discounts, as well as stand-alone broadband offerings and bundled voice and broadband services at various data rates.
According to the NTCA release, the plan calls for providing as much as $400 per eligible consumer over the program’s 12 months. The rural carriers estimate that as many as 1,000 low-income consumers in the five companies’ service areas could participate in the program.
An FCC spokesman said the commission received about 20 applications to the broadband low-income pilot program, which were due Monday. At press time the applications had not yet been made publicly available.
But other service providers that might be interested in participating include Comcast and CenturyLink, both of which were required to offer discounted broadband service to low-income customers as a condition of recent merger approvals. The Comcast program has mushroomed since its inception and several other cable companies are now participating in the Connect2Compete program, which was based heavily on Comcast’s program.
The FCC spokesman said the commission hopes to make awards soon.