Better Broadband, Better Lifeline Pilot Program Set to Launch April 1

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois, March 7, 2013 -- A new pilot program, set to launch April 1 will provide up to $1.5 million in discounted internet service and additional funds for digital literacy training, and low-cost desktop computers to low-income households in 35 rural Illinois counties.

 The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced recipients of the Broadband Lifeline Adoption Pilot Program in December. Illinois’ “Better Broadband, Better Lifeline” project received the fourth largest funding amount in the nation. Details on the project in Illinois emerged as representatives from eligible telecommunications carriers, Broadband Illinois, the Citizens Utility Board and Connected Living met in Springfield this week.

 "The FCC's broadband lifeline pilot puts Illinois in a key position to influence the direction of the evolving Universal Broadband Service Fund," said Drew Clark, Executive Director of Broadband Illinois. "In our unique project, we're going to work with seven independent telecommunications companies to get low-income and rural customers using broadband more effectively."

The “Better Broadband, Better Lifeline” program will be offered to anyone in a targeted rural county who receives public assistance, such as Medicaid or federal public housing, among many other programs. As many as 3,700 households will be eligible.

Those eligible will receive high-speed internet access for as low as $10 per month and a refurbished desktop computer for as low as $50. Computer training also will be offered in some areas.

The seven telecommunications companies involved in the program are Adams Communications, Cass Communications, Harrisonville Telephone Company, Madison Communications, Mid-Century TeleCom, Shawnee Communications and Wabash Telephone Cooperative.

The computers and technical support will be provided by Computer Banc, of Springfield.

David Fowler, Executive Director of Computer Banc, said that most of the systems provided will be Dell, equipped with Windows 7 and Apache Open Office and an 80-gigabit hard drive. Most will include DVD players and a 17-inch LCD monitor. All will come with new cords, mice and keyboards.

The machines will be shipped via UPS within 30 days of when his company receives vouchers from those entering the program.

Fowler said Computer Banc specializes in working with the demographic targeted by the pilot program.

“We are very prepared with our experience to be able to provide, not only the tech support, but the kind of instructions in understanding the target population that we typically deal with,” Fowler said.

Anyone who receives a computer will have a tech support professional available to them who will have the ability to run diagnostics on machines and perform repairs remotely.  Computers that can’t be fixed remotely can be shipped back to Computer Banc for repair.

The agency Connected Living, which is funded by Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) , will spearhead digital literacy training for Better Broadband, Better Lifeline program participants.

“We believe that digital inclusion creates a pathway to independence for trainees by teaching connections, job skills, access to education and social services, finance and health care,” Gina Baxter of Connected Living said.

Baxter said that improving the quality of life for low-income individuals is important, and a reason her agency works with targeted populations.

“In the mean time, we create jobs in the local area, by offering programs like this,” she said. “We create sustainable broadband business models.”

Baxter said her agency believes in teaching low-income seniors how to connect with friends and family via the internet to help weave broadband into their ways of life.

Connected Living is in the process of hiring trainers for the Better Broadband, Better Lifeline program. Baxter said the agency is seeking people who are patient and can help people understand their computers, without getting too technical.

The Citizens Utility Board (CUB), a nonprofit organization with a mission of securing lower utility rates for households, will take over the marketing and outreach side of the Better Broadband, Better Lifeline pilot program.

Sarah Moskowitz, of CUB, said there are many unique challenges in getting the word out about the program. Her agency is working to secure dates and venues for promotional events, as well as finding partners to help distribute information.

Moskowitz said she planned to reach out to various community action agencies, schools, elected officials and churches in the coming weeks and months.

CUB has developed a postcard that will be sent to many eligible participants and press releases will go to newspapers and other media outlets.

As implementation of the pilot program ramps up, several more meetings will be held and more information will be available to the public.

The project stems from the FCC’s ongoing transition from providing low-cost phone service to enabling low-cost internet connections.

In addition to getting people online, the project will focus on studying the adoption rates of households provided with digital literacy training. Participating ETCs will track usage and retention of service during the 12-month pilot to determine if training helps subscribers overcome adoption hurdles such as “relevance” or “privacy concerns.” To test the impact of the training, one group of subscribers will be offered a flat rate $30 subsidy for 12 months and receive digital literacy training. Another group will receive only the training and not the subsidy.

“Robust, affordable broadband has become essential to access jobs, education, and economic opportunity,” the said the FCC in December. “More than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies today require online job applications. And students with broadband at home have a 7 percent higher graduate rate. But low-income households adopt broadband at much lower rates than the average household: Fewer than 36 percent of families with incomes less than $25,000 subscribe to broadband at home, compared to nearly 92 percent of families with incomes over $75,000.”  

Tags: broadband, Connected Living, CUB, FCC, illinois, Lifeline, Pilot

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