Comcast extends 'Internet Essentials' program indefinitely

Comcast extends its subsidized broadband program beyond its June 2014 commitment. The cable giant started the program back in 2011 as part of its conditions for its merger with NBC Universal.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia. Comcast

Cable giant Comcast announced Tuesday that it is voluntarily extending its Internet Essentials program, which provides subsidized broadband Internet service to low-income families in its service area, beyond its three-year commitment.

The company also announced that it's making more than $1 million in grants to 15 communities that have done the most to help close the digital divide. Comcast is also recognizing another five communities for being most improved. In these 20 recognized communities, eligible families that have not yet signed up for Internet Essentials, but qualify for the program, will be able to do so before March 18 to get six months of free Internet Essentials service.

The grants are being given to create Internet Essentials Learning Zones, which tie together nonprofits, libraries, and computer centers so kids can enjoy a continuum of connectivity that starts at school, follows them to after school programs and resources, and ends at home.

Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, who has spearheaded the program, said he's been pleased with its success.

"In just two and a half years, this groundbreaking initiative has connected more than 1.2 million low-income Americans, or 300,000 families, to broadband Internet at home," Cohen said in a statement. "Here at Comcast, addressing the digital divide head-on has long been a priority for our company. We believe the Internet has the power to transform lives, strengthen communities, and inspire a new generation of leaders."


What is Internet Essentials?
The program, which launched in September 2011 and was set to expire in June of this year, was designed to target poor 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. Comcast started the program as part of a voluntary commitment it made to the Federal Communications Commission in order to get its merger with NBC Universal approved.

Back then, the company promised to keep the program up and running for three years. With today's announcement, Comcast is extending the program indefinitely. Today Internet Essentials is available in more than 30,000 schools and 4,000 school districts, in 39 states and the District of Columbia. Comcast is already serving large urban areas such as Chicago, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, Miami, and Philadelphia.

The company's CEO Brian Roberts has said that the program will be extended to markets served by Time Warner Cable, if regulators approve the proposed $45 billion merger between the two cable companies. This would extend the program to 19 or the 20 largest cities in the US, such as New York and Los Angeles.

The way the Internet Essentials program works is families with at least one child receiving free or reduced lunch as part of the federal government's National School Lunch Program is eligible to receive Comcast's broadband service for $9.95 per month. Comcast has increased the speed of the program from 1.5 Mbs to 5 Mbps since it began the program. And it has expanded the eligibility for the program to cover 30 percent more students. Initially, the program targeted families who received free lunch. It was later expanded to cover children also receiving reduced lunches. And in schools where at least 70 percent of the school population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, Comcast is offering the program to every student. This means that the 30 percent of students in those schools who don't qualify for the free or reduced lunch program can still qualify for Internet essentials. The program also now includes students enrolled in parochial schools as well as those who are home-schooled. (Based on the 2011 program, 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. Through partnerships with nonprofits, such as One Economy, Common Sense Media, and iKeepSafe, Comcast has also developed free printed and online digital literacy training that has been available at no cost in schools, libraries, and through community organizations to help these families make the most of their broadband resource.

Former NFL player and coach Tony Dungy and Comcast executive vice president David Cohen visit with students. Comcast

Since the program began two and half years ago, Comcast has sold more than 23,000 subsidized computers at less than $150 each, the company said. It's also distributed more than 33 million Internet Essentials brochures at no cost. And it's partnered with more than 8,000 community-based organizations, government agencies, and federal, state, and local elected officials.

The digital divide
Closing the so-called "digital divide" was a goal first outlined in the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which was published in 2010. The idea was to bring high speed Internet access to all Americans. Since then President Obama has been pushing his ConnectED educational goals, an initiative that will provide 99 percent of the nation's schools with access to high-speed broadband technology within five years.

At the time that the National Broadband Plan was published, nearly one-third of the US population, or about 93 million Americans, did not have broadband Internet access at home. The report identified three main reasons as barriers to adoption: affordability, digital literacy, and relevance.

Comcast's Internet Essentials program was designed to address these barriers, and the company targeted low-income families with school-age children because of the educational benefits broadband offers.

Comcast is not the only company that is working toward more Internet adoption. As part of President Obama's ConnectED program, wireless operators AT&T and Sprint have signed on to provide free high-speed wireless Internet access to schools. Companies like Apple and Adobe have pledged $100 million in equipment and software. Apple for example will provide $100 million worth of iPads, MacBooks, and other equipment to schools as well as provide teacher training.

But so far, Comcast's program is the largest such effort. According to new research, it's also been among the most successful.

John Horrigan, formerly the head of research for the FCC's National Broadband Plan and a former research director with Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, applauds Comcast's efforts. Horrigan recently released a study of Internet Essentials customers, which offers insights on how broadband providers and communities can design effective broadband adoption programs.

"The research shows that for broadband adoption initiatives to successfully reach low-income families, they need to embrace two key elements," Horrigan said. "First, they must be woven into the fabric of the entire community with trusted institutions that can help nurture and sustain Internet usage. Second, programs need to provide robust digital literacy educational opportunities that address the knowledge gap head on."

Horrigan said that Comcast's program is a good start to reaching more low-income people with broadband. And he said that Internet Essentials can provide a framework for other Internet service providers or groups looking to address the digital divide. Specifically, Comcast has done a good job providing a low-cost service that more people can afford. And the company has also done well in educating people about why they need the Internet and how to use it. But he said that going through the schools to qualify and select people eligible for the program may not go far enough. Other institutions could also be involved to help expand broadband's reach.

For example, 65 percent of respondents to Horrigan's study viewed using the Internet to access banks and government agencies as important.

"We need to get these institutions involved in the solution, too," Horrigan said.

Right now, Comcast is focused on continuing getting more broadband services to low-income families with school-age children. The company has done a pilot program with the American Association of Retired Persons or AARP to see how it can help connect more senior citizens to broadband. But Cohen said that Comcast has a lot more it can do with the current Internet Essentials program. So for now, it has no plans to expand the program to address other low-income groups.

Updated 9:25 am. PTThis story was updated with additional information from Comcast's conference call announcing the extension of its low-income Internet Essentials program.