As AT&T and Google push broadband adoption, the feds are non-players

Some question U.S. government efforts on digital inclusion, putting pressure on the private sector

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Brake and other experts have noted that the Pew Research Center found in a survey of 357 Americans last September that 15% of America adults don't use the Internet at all, with about one-third of that group saying the Internet wasn't relevant to them, and another third saying it was frustrating or difficult to use.

The survey is being used to justify why some neighborhoods aren't connected to the Internet, while others believe the Pew survey sample size needs to include more respondents with more details to help explain what's holding some people back, especially when low-cost cable Internet service plans have been available for years.

At Connecting for Good, a nonprofit IT support group in Kansas City, Mo., regular two-hour computer classes in two locations are usually crowded, and up to 90% of the attendees will leave after finishing a class to sign up for a $50 rebuilt computer to use at home. In some Kansas City neighborhoods, as few as 20% of resident have a home Internet connection, and Connecting for Good has tried to address that problem by installing mesh wireless networks to some apartments, then following up by getting residents familiar with basic computer skills.

Many of the people taking classes at Connecting for Good are simply intimidated by computers and need one-on-one help getting started, said Terry Zenon, one of the group's volunteer instructors.

Google Fiber's arrival in the Kansas City area has helped supercharge interest in home broadband, according to Connecting for Good volunteers. Even so, Google has so far resisted connecting its fiber to Wi-Fi routers to serve low-income apartment buildings in the belief that fiber to each home is more secure and reliable, especially where Wi-Fi doesn't work well through concrete walls.

Google says it alone can't solve the digital inclusion problem, and nobody disagrees.

"Many stakeholders, not just Google Fiber, have to work together to close the digital divide in Kansas City and across the U.S. -- to get the remaining 25% [without broadband] online," spokeswoman Wandres said. "This will take work and commitment over the long term and that's what we're doing through our own product, but also by working with cities, schools, community organizations and local businesses."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at  @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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