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Obama announces pilot program to expand broadband to low-income households

Obama talks about high-speed broadband access  after viewing a fiber optics splicing demonstration in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

This post has been updated. 

DURANT, Okla. -- President Obama announced a pilot program to bring broadband to low-income households in public housing on Wednesday, attempting to close a gap that leaves many without high-speed Internet.

The plan, called ConnectHome, will launch in 27 cities nationwide and is expected to reach 275,000 public-housing households, including 200,000 children. The program will also come to the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, where Obama spoke here Wednesday.

"The internet is not a luxury, it's a necessity," Obama said, noting that the people who "could benefit the most from the latest technology are the least likely to have it."

The plan is part of a broader White House strategy to upgrade the nation's technology infrastructure much like it would roads or bridges, and bring high-speed Internet to every corner of the country. The administration has pledged to bring high-speed broadband and wireless Internet to 99 percent of the nation's schools by 2017. Earlier this year ahead of the State of the Union Obama called for high-speed Internet to be more widely available and less expensive nationwide, and criticized state laws that deter competition among Internet service providers.

[Read: Obama calls for faster Internet service, paid sick leave for all]

The ConnectHome program will partner with Internet service providers, nonprofit groups and private companies to provide faster Internet in the communities and tribal nation, which were chosen by the Department of Housing and Urban Development based on criteria including local commitment to providing fast Internet. The cities include Los Angeles, Newark, and Rockford, Ill.

Four of the cities selected have access to Google Fiber, and the company will provide free service to people in selected public housing and will work with community organizations to help families with school-age children learn digital literacy. In the Choctaw nation, communications companies will work to provide public housing residents with low-cost Internet. Other companies in the cities where the program is taking place will do the same. Best Buy will offer technical training to students in five of the cities where ConnectHome will launch.

Obama said that connecting all children -- and adults -- to the Internet is crucial for the American economy. If it doesn't happen, he said, the United States will lag in the global economy behind countries such as South Korea, which is pouring resources into technology.

"We will start falling behind those countries, which is unthinkable because we invented the stuff," Obama said. "It's American ingenuity that created the Internet .. and the notion that we will leave some Americans behind .. while other countries are racing ahead, that's a recipe for disaster."

[The government found a smart way to connect the poor to the Internet]

According to the Obama administration, 4G wireless broadband is available to 98 percent of Americans, and 3 in 4 Americans use broadband at home. But there remain persistent gaps in who accesses the services, with low-income and rural Americans disproportionately affected by a lack of fast Internet. According to a Council of Economic Advisers issued brief, 90.1 percent of households where an adult received a college degree had Internet in 2013, compared to 43.8 percent of people with less than a high school education. It also shows that large swaths of rural areas in the South and Southwest have some of the nation's lowest Internet adoption rates.

"Less than half of the poorest American households have a home Internet subscription and they face real barriers when trying to lift themselves up and better their lives because of it," Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro said in a conference call.

ConnectHome has secured $70 million in private-sector commitments, Castro said. The Agriculture Department will provide a $50,000 grant to help outfit the Choctaw Nation with broadband, he said.

Obama's trip to the Choctaw Nation was his second trip to an Indian reservation as president. Obama visited the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe last year.

[Read: As Obama makes rare presidential visit to Indian reservation, past U.S. betrayals loom]

Here in Oklahoma, Obama touted the gains his administration has made for Native American tribes and their members, from strengthening sovereign nations to expanding opportunities for young people to initiatives  to help tribes.

"We can’t reverse centuries of history, broken treaties, broken promises,” Obama said. “But I believe that we can come together as partners and forge a new path based on trust and respect.”

Since his trip to North Dakota, the president and first lady Michelle Obama have spoken about the need to reach out to Native Americans, particularly youth, in starkly emotional terms.

"Michelle and I believe we’ve got a special obligation to make sure that tribal youth have every opportunity to achieve their potential,” Obama said here.

In November, Obama recounted crying in the Oval Office while speaking about the plight of students he met in North Dakota, who dealt with classmates who committed suicide and endemic poverty on the isolated reservation. The administration held a first-ever summit for tribal youth earlier this month as part of its Generation Indigenous initiative, which aims to improve the lives of Native American youth. Teenagers from more than 230 tribes attended. Obama met with young people from the Choctaw Nation, Cherokee Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Chickasaw Nation before his speech.

“His role during his presidency has been very positive for Indian Country as a whole,” said Greg Cajete, director of Native American studies at the University of New Mexico. “He’s one of the first presidents who has created a space if you will for the native voice within the context of the White House and also with his visits.”

Obama continued to stay in touch with the teenagers from Standing Rock, inviting them and other students from their school to Washington last year.

[Read: How the stories of Native American youths made Obama cry in the Oval Office]

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations here have reached a preliminary settlement with the U.S. government over a lawsuit over the sale and alleged mismanagement of more than a million acres of land that once belonged to the tribes, said Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman.

"The United States has reached an agreement in principle with the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations regarding breach of trust claims.  The parties are presently in the process of conducting their final settlement review and approval processes.  The Obama Administration remains committed to resolving all tribal breach of trust claims honorably and fairly," Hornbuckle said in a statement.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2005, alleged that the government didn't protect tribes' interests when it sold off the land to timber companies between 1908 and 1940.

Amanda Cobb-Greetham, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Native American Studies program, said there is a "painful history" for Native Americans here, but that Oklahoma is their home.

"President Obama is trying to make the government to government tribal relationship truly meaningful and has worked to do that," she said.