Startup Offers New Business Plan For Broadband

I couldn’t help but be taken by this out of the box way of thinking about broadband access. Perhaps it is my soft spot for potentially do-good business plans.

The startup is called BoxTop Solutions Inc. and it asks the question of how corporate America can bring broadband access to people who can’t afford it. The answer is simple: have Internet companies and Website owners pay for it. In the process, Net Neutrality is turned on its head.

It may surprise most people in Silicon Valley and the nation’s other tech centers that just 35.8% of U.S. households with annual incomes under $25,000 actually have broadband. There is a big need to close the digital divide.

BoxTop looks at the challenge this way: if Internet companies such as Netflix Inc., Google Inc. or Yahoo Inc. want to reach these underserved Americans, let them pay for the bandwidth. Thomas Sachson, an investor, board member and angel investor at Silicon Valley Angels, says BoxTop plans to produce a stripped down computer with a built in modem and limited functionality. It intends to sell the device for $10 or so and charge Internet companies a fee to pre-install online applications and connect users to their sites.

Users then go to the sites for free, and BoxTop uses the money it collects to pay carriers–such as AT&T Inc.–for the bandwidth. People who previously couldn’t afford net access now have it. The digital divide shrinks. Compelling idea, right? Interesting way for such companies as Yahoo to find new customers, no?

Here are the problems. First, if consumers want to access sites other than those with pre-installed apps, they need to contact AT&T and pay separately for Internet access. Suddenly free goes away.

Second, the proposal runs headlong into the Net Neutrality debate. Sachson said BoxTop will do away with need for Net Neutrality legislation. But if Internet companies pay for simple access, it might only be a short step away from advanced tiers of service with greater levels of performance–exactly what Net Neutrality wants to prevent.

In any event, the 2-month-old BoxTop is creative thinking at work. The company is at a very early stage with only money from insiders (Sachson won’t say how much). It will be interesting to see what it is able to do.