In an attempt to help bridge a new digital divide, cable giant Comcast is launching a new program that could bring a low-cost broadband Internet service to as many as 150,000 Philadelphia students.
“Kids who are eligible for a free lunch under the National School Lunch program are eligible to apply,” said Charlie Douglas, senior director of corporate communications at Comcast.
The program, called Internet Essentials, eliminates what Douglas described as the three barriers to access: cost, lack of equipment and education.
“We’re attacking the three problems that research has identified as the cause of low broadband adoption among low income Americans,” he said.
It provides broadband Internet access — with download speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 384 Kbps — for $9.95 a month, and guarantees no price increases, activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a Dell or Acer computer for $149.99 and provides a free digital literacy training course in print, online or in person.
“A lot of people in this country still don’t see the value [of a high-speed internet connection] and what it’s for,” Douglas said.
A study released in January by the Pew Research Center noted a shift in the digital divide, a lack of access among ethnic groups. Access to the Internet is growing through cell phone use, which is about equal among whites, Blacks and Latinos; but Blacks and Latinos have less access to high speed connections that are of growing importance in the modern world, the report found.
“Some see a new ‘digital divide’ emerging,” noted the report. “It’s tough to fill out a job application on a cell phone, for example. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. And Blacks and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.”
According to the report, 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of Blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of whites. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of Blacks use their phones for email, compared with 30 percent of whites.
In addition, the report found a greater percentage of whites than Blacks and Latinos still have broadband access at home.
Comcast will promote the plan for the next three years and families that sign up during that period will be able to keep the $9.95 price for as long as they have a child in school and remain part of the National Free Lunch Program.
To be eligible, in addition to having a child in the free lunch program, participants must: live where Comcast offers Internet service; have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days, not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
The official Philadelphia launch will take place Tuesday at the Salvation Army Kroc Community Center in Nicetown with Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts, Mayor Michael Nutter and Interim Superintendent of Schools Leroy Nunery.
Ultimately, the program will be available in 39 states. Douglas estimated that as many as 2.5 million families would be eligible to participate.
For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com for English or www.internetbasico.com for Spanish. Parents looking to enroll in the program can call 1-855-846-8376 or, for Spanish, 1-855-765-6995.