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Home Broadband Effort Will Extend Internet Access to Millions More Americans

By guest blogger Ian Quillen

Nearly 18 months after its conception, the nonprofit Connect to Compete organization Thursday launched its promised trio of programs aimed at an estimated 100 million Americans without home broadband Internet access, including tens of millions of students.

Further, it announced a new national "EveryoneOn" advertising campaign, designed and managed by the Ad Council to help ensure that as many of those Americans as possible are aware of those services, including sharply discounted Internet and computer-purchasing opportunities for those who qualify, and free digital literacy training.

The move to open the program nationwide follows a pilot program in San Diego that began last summer.

Connect to Compete, originally announced by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski in October of 2011, does not directly target the formal education system, but instead sets its sites on increasing home Internet access and technology skills.

Still, Acting Director of the U.S. Office of Educational Technology Richard Culatta says it will undoubtedly be a positive force in the nations' schools, provided it comes with a twin focus of increasing technology access within school walls.

"We recognize it is a huge, huge step getting these devices and these resources in the hands of some of the students that need them most," Culatta said. "But we also realize there is a problem we have to fix in the schools, too. We can't call it a done day by giving access in the home."

Further, the accompanying Ad Council campaign will aim to give Connect to Compete substantially more publicity than it has received in the time since Genachowski first announced the concept. The private, nonprofit organization uses donated media and services from partner companies and organizations to create highly visible public service campaigns. The Ad Council is perhaps most known for iconic characters such as McGruff the crime dog, Smokey Bear, and Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies.

Priscilla Natkins, the Ad Council's executive vice president and director of client services, said the campaign will be focused primarily on adults, since they are the most likely to make a family's decision to purchase a discounted Internet connection or computer, or enroll in a digital literacy training. It's possible the Ad Council in the future would consider targeting children through schools to influence their parents, in a manner similar to a 1990s-era council-led recycling campaign, but there are no immediate plans to do so, she said.

"I think we're pretty confident in the direction we're going right now," Natkins said, before adding, "We are open to any messaging direction that makes a difference."

The campaign will feature mostly real-life stories and target specifically an estimated 62 million Americans who lack basic digital literacy skills. (Both the 100 million and 62 million figures are FCC estimates.) It will use both traditional print and broadcast media, as well as some Internet and mobile advertising to reach both savvy citizens capable of helping the cause, and segments of those 62 million people who may connect occasionally through mobile devices or at work.

The council will measure peoples' attitudes toward home Internet use before and after the campaign launch, as well as monitoring traffic on the campaign's website and to its toll free number, to judge its effectiveness, Natkins said. Typically, such efforts take a few years to build steam, she added, one reason that partners such as America Online, Monster.com, and Facebook have been asked to give a three-year commitment to the project.

Services offered through Connect to Compute utilize contributions from for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies, including significant investment from cable, Internet, and hardware providers.

Concerning the Internet, families will be able to connect in a couple ways depending on where they live.

FreedomPop will offer a $49 wireless router that includes one free gigabyte of data per month, with an additional 12 gigabytes available for $9.99. Subscribers will have the option of having an auto-off feature on the router to prevent any overages according to a press release. Meanwhile, Comcast and Cox cable companies will offer a $9.95 monthly broadband connection to families who qualify based on National School Lunch Program eligibility indicators, the release says.

Comcast had already begun offering its version of the service, called Internet Essentials, in its coverage areas in September of 2011. While not aimed at boosting in-school activity, officials at the time said they heavily leaned on schools to help publicize the program to students and their families. Cox's program is slated to begin next month.

Meanwhile, hardware providers including Comcast, GoodPC, and Microsoft will sell new or refurbished computers for $200 or less to those who qualify through need-based indicators, the release said. And the initiative's digital literacy program will utilize educators from companies such as Best Buy, and facilities including local libraries and community centers run by the U.S. Department of Housting and Urban Development. The partnership with HUD, initially focusing on communities in Chicago, Detroit, Miami, Philadelphia, St. Paul, Minn., and Washington, was announced last month.

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