Comcast is expanding its inexpensive Internet Essentials program to all low-income households throughout its entire service area, opening up the program to individuals with disabilities, as well as to senior citizens. The expansion of the program will more than double the number of households that can access the $9.95 a month service, increasing it to about 7 million.
The programto help impoverished children who received free or reduced-price lunches at school get access to the internet at home. The program has been modified 11 times to expand the eligibility requirements to include low-income veterans and people receiving public housing benefits. A pilot in several cities has also offered the service to qualifying senior citizens.
This latest expansion is the largest to date and brings in people with disabilities, a group Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen says is disproportionately left out of the digital experience.
"According to research, people with disabilities are about three times more likely to say they never go online," he said on a call with reporters Tuesday. "They're also nearly 20 percentage points less likely to subscribe to broadband at home."
Cohen said this latest expansion is the culmination of the company's goal, when it started the program in 2011, to "meaningfully and significantly close the digital divide for low-income Americans."
"The Internet is arguably the most important technological innovation in history," Cohen said. "And it is unacceptable that we live in a country where millions of families and individuals are missing out on this life-changing resource."
Closing the digital divide
News of Comcast's expansion comes at a time when the Federal Communications Commission, Congress and President Donald Trump have talked a lot about the digital divide, focusing.
But there's also a digital divide between affluent and low-income households in cities and suburbs where service does exist. That divide is worse for cities with the highest levels of poverty. According to US Census data, households living in cities with the highest poverty rates are up to 10 times more likely than those in communities with higher levels of income not to have broadband at home. For example, in Palo Alto, California, or Bethesda, Maryland, where poverty rates are very low, 94 percent of households are connected to the internet. But in Trenton, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, where poverty rates are way above the national average, 60 percent or more of households don't have broadband at home.
There are several reasons for this divide between internet haves and have-nots, with affordability being only one piece of the puzzle, explained Cohen. The main barrier is what Cohen said is a "complex mix of digital literacy, skills, fear and a lack of perceived need or interest in having the internet at home." The second and third barriers include the lack of an internet capable computer and the cost of a monthly home internet subscription.
Internet Essentials tries to address all three issues, by providing low-cost service and affordable computers for under $150, which are subsidized by Comcast. But the company also works with dozens of nonprofits throughout the country that provide free digital training to help provide the digital literacy needed to get people to utilize the program.
The Technology Policy Institute's John Horrigan, who helped write the FCC's 2010 National Broadband Plan, has researched the barriers to closing the digital divide. He's also looked closely at Comcast's program. Results from a survey conducted earlier this year of more than 1,200 Internet Essential customers found that digital training is the key to getting people to use the service.
Horrigan added that Internet Essentials customers are eager for more training. He said about 35% of Internet Essentials customers who responded to the survey within three months of signing up for service had received digital skills training since getting service. But a large number said they were interested in some form of training, with about two-thirds, or 66%, interested in training on the privacy and security of their data. About 60% were interested in how to better communicate with their children's school, and 52% were interested in job or workforce development training.
"If the program's goals are to get people online, and for online access to help people improve their lives, then training resources -- typically at community anchors such as schools and libraries -- are key, as are initiatives to make sure people are aware of them," Horrigan said.
Cohen admitted the expansion of the program would likely put pressure on its existing community partners, like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. But he said the company will also tap into already established relationships with other groups to help provide necessary digital training to new populations that'll be served under the program.
"We've got existing relationships with virtually every major disability organization in America, at the National and the local level," he said. "And we intend to rely very heavily on those relationships to help us to reach people with disabilities, and provide the same level of services. The Boys and Girls Clubs are creating programs for families with kids in school and for families with school-age children."
There's also been some criticism of Comcast's program. The biggest one is that speeds for the Internet Essential customers is capped at downloads of 15 Mbps. Theservices as those that deliver at least 25 Mbps downloads.
Cohen pushed back at this notion. He said 15 Mbps is "more than sufficient for our internet essentials customers to do everything on the internet that they need to do." For instance, he said, this is plenty of bandwidth to access educational programs or to stream multiple videos in the home at once. He also pointed out that the modem provided to families at no additional charge as part of the program also provides free Wi-Fi at home to connect multiple devices at once.
He also criticized the FCC for using 25 Mbps as the benchmark for defining broadband.
"With all due respect to the FCC, I think that the judgments that they have made around what it is that represents 'broadband' are as much politically driven as they are substantively driven," he said. He added that there has been no suggestion from the FCC that the 15 Mbps download speeds "are not more than sufficient to be able to provide a high quality internet experience."
He also pointed to the fact that Comcast has raised the connection speed for Internet Essentials, which started at downloads of 1.5 Mbps, four times since 2011.
"I think we've earned our chops in making the representation that it's our goal to get people connected to the Internet," he said. "We think we're in a sweet spot right now with the program and 15 Mbps downloads. But if that changes, as we've already done four times previously, we'll take a look at the speeds again."
How to qualify
To be eligible for Comcast's program, applicants need to show that they're participating in one or more government assistance programs, such as Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or the Supplemental Security Income program (SSI). A full list of these programs can be found at www.internetessentials.com.
Comcast already accepts applicants who have a student eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program, live in public housing or receive HUD Housing Assistance, including Section 8 vouchers, or participate in the Veterans Pension Program, as well as low-income seniors and community college students in select pilot markets.