It shouldn’t take a merger for low-income Americans to get cheap broadband

Comcast is extending its $10-a-month broadband program for low-income Americans. The discounted service, known as Internet Essentials, was set to expire three years after Comcast's merger with NBC-Universal in 2011. But now the cable company says it's making the program available to eligible people "indefinitely."

The announcement Tuesday comes a month after Comcast announced its plan to acquire Time Warner Cable -- a deal that would create a massive conglomerate covering roughly a third of the pay-TV market and that is expected to draw the attention of antitrust regulators. The merger must still be approved by the Justice Department and the Federal Communications Commission, and analysts say Comcast's latest moves are part of a charm offensive designed to win over skeptical regulators.

Comcast's motives aside, giving poorer Americans the same access to broadband that wealthier people enjoy has been a longtime goal of the Obama administration. Internet Essentials makes a dent by connecting some 300,000 families to the Web — the equivalent of 1.2 million individuals, according to Comcast. Other cable providers have since followed suit, working with the FCC in a program called Connect to Compete that also aims to provide a similar discount. The map below highlights areas covered by Connect to Compete.

Comcast's program began as a subsidy for families with children who qualified for free school lunches. After this condition was imposed by the FCC as part of the company's NBC-Universal merger, Comcast soon expanded it to cover home-schooled, parochial and private school children, as well as children on low-cost lunches.

The program's growth suggests that there's much more room for the nation's other Internet providers to broaden access, too. In 2011, when Connect to Compete began, the FCC estimated that about a third of the country hadn't signed up for broadband.

Businesses aren't charities, of course, and we've come to accept that a company's first duty is to its shareholders. Still, as William Bratton and Michael Wachter, two University of Pennsylvania law professors, point out in a 2013 paper: It wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that people began to prioritize investor welfare over other goals.

Even if you don't buy into the notion of corporate social responsibility, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has made broadband access a matter of equal rights. It's not just enough that broadband providers build networks where poor people live, he wrote in an e-book he published last year.

"If high-speed Internet connections have not been built to an area or are denied to individuals because of either their individual economic realities or the practices of the provider, then access has been effectively denied," Wheeler wrote.

In other words, making sure everyone, rich or poor, gets adequate access to the Web is something businesses should be doing of their own volition — which brings us back to Comcast. Industry watchers say Comcast's compliance with the FCC's previous requirements, along with the changes that would result from a merger with Time Warner Cable, might encourage regulators to ask for more concessions this time around.

Thing is, it probably shouldn't take a merger to produce them.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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