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Comcast offers cheap broadband to poor families

Cable giant launches its Internet Essentials program today in Washington, D.C., to offer low-income families more affordable broadband and computers.

Cable giant Comcast is making good on its promise to help the U.S. boost broadband adoption rates and eliminate the so-called digital divide by offering poor families more affordable broadband.

The company announced today its Internet Essentials program that will target low-income families with school-age children and help them get connected to the Internet by offering a combination of discounted broadband service, low-cost computers, and free training programs to teach people how to use the technology.

The company kicked off the program at Ballou High School in the District of Columbia. David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast, was joined at the launch for the program by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and D.C.Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Nearly one-third of the U.S. population, or about 93 million Americans, do not have broadband Internet access at home, according to the FCC's National Broadband Plan presented to Congress in 2010. The report identified three main reasons as barriers to adoption: affordability, digital literacy, and relevance.

Cohen said that Comcast's Internet Essentials program is an attempt to address all of these barriers. And the company targeted low-income families with school-age children because of the educational benefits broadband offers.

"What has become apparent to us as a company is that there is a cruel irony when it comes to broadband," Cohen said in an interview. "We have this wonderful technology which has the potential to be a great equalizer, providing access to education, health care, and jobs information across multiple income populations. But because of the adoption gap, or the digital divide, access to the Internet is actually exacerbating the problem instead of solving it."

How it works
The way the Internet Essentials program works is families with at least one child receiving free lunch as part of the federal government's National School Lunch Program will be eligible to receive Comcast's broadband service for $9.95 per month. Comcast typically charges about $41 a month for this 1.5 Mbps service. (A family of three making $24,000 or less a year qualifies for free lunch (PDF) as part of the national lunch program. )

In addition to offering low-cost broadband, Comcast is also working with Microsoft, Dell, and Acer to offer discounted computers to these households for less than $150. And through partnerships with nonprofits One Economy, Common Sense Media, and iKeepSafe, Comcast has also developed free printed and online digital literacy training that will be available at no cost in schools, libraries and through community organizations to help these families make the most of their broadband resource.

Internet Essentials will be rolled out in more than 4,000 school districts in 39 states and the District of Columbia this school year. Comcast estimates that approximately 1.5 million to 2 million families may be eligible to participate in the program.

Comcast will initially focus its marketing efforts for Internet Essentials in the most impoverished areas and school districts with a high proportion of students receiving free lunch, Cohen said. But he said that even in areas where there is a low-population of free lunch students or in places where the schools themselves are not participating in the program, families whose children qualify for free lunch will be eligible for the program. They simply need to contact Comcast.

Also, as long as the family has a student receiving free lunch through the national program, the family will be eligible for the $9.95 service. And the price will not go up, Cohen said.

Once a student graduates high school and/or if the family no longer qualifies for free lunch, the family will no longer qualify for the Internet Essentials program and will have to pay full price for the broadband service. Comcast is offering more information on this program on its Web site.

Cohen said that Comcast has been developing programs to increase digital literacy and to make Internet access more affordable for low-income populations for several years in cities, such as Philadelphia and Boston. The company has invested in nonprofits, such as OneEconomy to help provide digital literacy training. And it's built community technology labs in places such as Philadelphia.

Unlike some of its other efforts, the Internet Essentials program specifically targets families and children. Offering low-cost access to broadband service and to computers is a key part of this solution, because affordability may be the biggest barrier to adoption in this demographic.

Affordability a key barrier
Analysis of the most recent U.S. Census data shows that more than a third of "young" American families with children were living in poverty last year. Young families are defined as those with parents under the age of 30. In total, 37 percent these young families fell below the poverty line in 2010, eclipsing the previous high of 36 percent set in 1993, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

With many families unable to afford broadband service, it potentially puts their children even further behind academically from children who attend schools in wealthier communities. While grants and government funding, such as the FCC-administered E-Rate program, have provided many schools, including those in low-income areas with computers and technology in the classroom to enhance learning and education, too often that technology is left at the door when students leave school.

In higher income neighborhoods, 70 percent to 80 percent of students will likely have access to a computer and broadband connection at home. This allows schools to implement programs such as homework tracking software that gives teachers a way to assess students, as well as offers parents a way to check on their students' progress. But in low-income areas where broadband penetration is closer to 15 percent, offering that extra help and access to materials online at home is a huge hurdle.

Cohen said that Comcast came to the conclusion long ago that it needed to help solve this problem. And as part of its deal to buy NBC Universal, it voluntarily offered to make affordable broadband service available as part of its conditions with the FCC to approve the merger.

"It was a voluntary commitment to offer more affordable broadband service to low-income families," Cohen said. "We are not required to it. But we came to the FCC and offered this as a condition of the merger, because we knew this issue is important to the FCC. And it's important to us. We reached a decision years ago as a company that if we can't stand for digital literacy, then who is going to? It's our business."

FCC Chairman Genachowski said in a statement that he is pleased to see Comcast follow through on its promise.

"This past January, Comcast made a commitment to the FCC and the American people to provide discounted broadband service to millions of low-income families," he said. "The program will prepare the next generation, create new opportunities for more jobs and will make a positive difference in the lives of many Americans. I challenge other service producers to take concrete steps to help close the broadband adoption gap."

Cohen points out that other cable operators in other regions of the country are also addressing broadband affordability and the digital divide issue. He said Comcast got many of its ideas for the Internet Essentials program from a similar program offered by Cox Communications in San Diego.

"We're not trying to embarrass our fellow cable providers or our competitors by touting this program," Cohen said. "There are lots of companies addressing this issue in other ways. And this is another solution that we think is important. We are investing a lot in this, and if it's successful, maybe others will follow it."