As the Federal Communications Commission works to complete a national broadband plan by mid-February, the cable industry has proposed an innovative plan of its own to help close the digital divide for low-income students.

The plan, called Adoption Plus (A+), is a nationwide public-private partnership that would combine digital media literacy training with discounted broadband service and computers for eligible middle school students. The two-year pilot program would reach up to 3.5 million middle school children who are eligible for the National School Lunch Program, from approximately 1.8 million low-income households that currently do not receive broadband services.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) proposed the A+ program in filings with the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) and the FCC earlier this week. The proposal is the result of discussions with FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Blair Levin, who heads the agency’s broadband initiative, among other officials.

"I commend NCTA and [its] industry partners for their leadership in launching Adoption Plus, a program that will bring the benefits of broadband to millions of middle school-aged children in low-income households across the country," Genochowski said in a statement.

"The internet is increasingly essential to academic success. With 65 percent of teens going online to complete homework assignments, students [who] don’t have broadband access will fall behind those [who] do. …  The cable industry’s considerable investment in this program represents an important step in addressing the many broadband adoption challenges we face."

NCTA President Kyle McSlarrow said the plan has two goals: "to drive sustainable adoption in populations that currently do not benefit from broadband, and to … positively affect educational performance among participating students."

The A+ program would promote broadband adoption by recognizing that the many barriers to broadband adoption–including relevance, digital literacy, computer ownership, and affordability–require a comprehensive solution that goes beyond simply delivering high-speed internet service.

While the proposal is open to other broadband service providers who want to participate, it includes a commitment by the nation’s top cable broadband providers that they will provide broadband service and a cable modem to eligible households at a 50-percent discount for two years, as well as free installation of broadband service. The value of the cable industry’s offer could reach $572 million over the two years of the program, NCTA said.

School districts or state education agencies would be responsible for providing federally funded digital media literacy training to eligible students, including lessons in online safety and responsible internet use. Such training would have to meet minimum standards established by the federal government, according to the plan.

NCTA has proposed earmarking $100 million in broadband stimulus funding to pay for this training and related costs to schools. School districts would apply for grants from NTIA, which would administer the funding and ensure that eligible students receive the necessary instruction. The plan suggests that schools be required to match up to 20 percent of any grants they receive with their own funds.

Once an eligible student is enrolled in an A+ digital media literacy program, he or she would be eligible to purchase a single discounted computer. Participating computer manufacturers would be expected to provide their own contribution to offset the cost of a machine. However, the proposal also suggests that federal funds be allocated to provide further discounts off the price of computers.

The proposal doesn’t indicate whether it has the support of the computer industry, but NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz said the organization is in talks with several computer manufacturers about participating.

"We just announced this initiative and are hoping [it] will spur a larger discussion with computer manufacturers who will want to participate," Dietz said.

Participating broadband providers would offer entry-level broadband service (with a minimum download speed of 1 megabit per second) to the families of eligible students at a 50-percent discount for two years. Families also would get a modem at a 50-percent discount, whether purchased or rented; free installation of broadband service; and parental control software and other online safety tools. The plan does not assume any federal subsidy for providing these discounted services.

The proposal contains three eligibility criteria: Participants must be middle school students (grades 6-8 or 7-9, depending on the particular school district); they must be eligible for free or reduced-price lunches under the National School Lunch Program; and their household must not already receive broadband service.

NCTA chose these criteria to target a population of students for whom the program can have a significant impact. Low-income households have dramatically lower broadband adoption rates than the general population, the group explained, and middle school students–with appropriate guidance and digital media literacy training–are developmentally capable of safely and effectively taking advantage of the benefits of broadband.

Because this would be a pilot program, NCTA proposes that the federal government establish a means of assessing its impact on both broadband adoption rates and educational outcomes.

Reaction to the plan among education groups has been largely positive so far, although some expressed concern about what will happen when the pilot program ends.

"We believe this proposal represents a good first step by cable companies to improve broadband adoption, but it only gets us part of the way there," said Keith Krueger, chief executive of the Consortium for School Networking. "We urge other telecommunications providers to follow cable’s lead in discounting broadband access for low-income middle school students. Additionally, we encourage industry and government to work together to ensure that those students gain access to home technology, at low or no cost, so that they may capitalize on the A+ initiative’s promise."

Doug Levin, a former senior executive for Cable in the Classroom who now heads the State Educational Technology Directors Association, agreed the program marks a good first start, calling it "incredibly significant."

"It’s also good because it … recognizes [that] education needs structure, and that’s where the digital literacy comes into play," Levin said in an interview with eSchool News. "It’s important to have not only the tool, but the skills and school involvement."

But for the proposal to be truly successful, "there are a few issues that need tightening," Levin added. "For example, this is designed to be geared for the stimulus rubric (a two-year program), but the nationwide need for broadband access, especially for students, is long-term. Also, what should the role be for other telecommunication providers?"

Levin said he was pleased to see the proposal asks for federal studies to provide accountability, "because that’s crucial." But to get an accurate reading of its effectiveness, "the program needs more time," he said. "If these households and these students don’t have internet access, it might take some time for full-scale and skillful adoption."

A more detailed description of the A+ proposal is available on NCTA’s web site. The participating cable providers are Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, Charter, Cablevision, Bright House, Mediacom, Suddenlink, Insight Communications, Bresnan Communications, Midcontinent Communications, GCI, U.S. Cable, Bend Broadband, Eagle Communications, and Sjoberg’s Cable.

Links:

NCTA’s Adoption Plus program

Federal Communications Commission

National Telecommunications & Information Administration

Consortium for School Networking

Cable in the Classroom

State Educational Technology Directors Association

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Online Learning resource center. Thousands of K-12 schools across the nation are turning to online-learning providers for help with credit recovery, enrichment opportunities for gifted students, and for providing core curriculum classes in areas where there isn’t enough demand to justify keeping a teacher on staff. Go to: Online Learning