Although the vast majority of Americans have high-speed broadband of some kind these days, that optimistic figure comes with a few caveats: Most people can choose among only a couple of service providers. Many connections aren't fast enough to handle next-gen services. And nearly one-third of U.S. households still have no broadband at all.
So, how do we get this portion of the country connected to what's become a crucial piece of the economy? The trick is to reduce the price of high-speed Internet, according to a recent federally funded study.
In a survey of 15,000 Americans who don't have broadband, nearly two-thirds of respondents said they wouldn't consider signing up for the service at any price. This reflects what we already know: That people who aren't connected largely aren't interested in being connected and don't see how it would be relevant to their lives. But the remaining third of the sample leads the researchers to this promising conclusion:
The data indicates that up to 10 million households in the U.S. for which broadband is available might be willing to subscribe if a subscription discount is offered.
How much of a discount are we talking about? The researchers — a number of whom work for the Federal Communications Commission, which is tasked with promoting broadband nationally — estimate that to achieve a 10 percent increase in the share of Americans who are connected to broadband, the price of Internet would have to drop by 15 percent from what it would currently cost them.
You wouldn't have to do very much, in other words, to entice more people to adopt high-speed Internet. Here's an example of how this already works in certain areas. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2010 that the average broadband customer pays about $40 a month for Internet. Internet Essentials, Comcast's program for low-income Americans, drops the price to $10 a month — a reduction of 75 percent. While Internet Essentials limits your speed to 5 megabits per second (barely meeting the FCC's definition of broadband), expanding programs like that could be quite effective at getting more people to subscribe. Add in more federal subsidies for broadband, and potentially you'd have a very powerful set of incentives.
Consumer advocates called Wednesday for Comcast and other providers to step it up.
"Too many low-income people – including job seekers, older students, seniors and people with disabilities – can’t afford full-priced Internet and often they can’t reach their fullest potential without it," said Zach Leverenz, chief executive of the connectivity nonprofit EveryoneOn. On Wednesday, EveryoneOn, along with 100 other educational and minority groups, encouraged the FCC to "hold… ISPs accountable" for their low-income programs.