Comcast: Internet Essentials Program is working

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After a slow start and several program adjustments, Comcast officials say the Philadelphia company's Internet Essentials Program is moving full steam ahead.

The program created to expand Internet access for low-income families has provided $9.99-a-month broadband Internet service to hundreds of thousands of families nationwide and has distributed more than 15,000 netbook computers at less than $150 each in less than two years.

In Pennsylvania, more than 7,800 people have received discounted services, including 1,568 families in the Pittsburgh metro area, Comcast officials said. Additionally, the program has provided digital literacy education to more than 10,000 people across the country through partner community organizations.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen applauded the progress, but said more work needs to be done. He spoke during a conference call announcing the results.

"In just 16 months, Internet Essentials has helped put a real dent in the digital divide and connected more than 150,000 low income families or 600,000 Americans to the power of the Internet, most for the first time in their lives," he said. "To put that in perspective, that's approximately the entire population of Washington, D.C., or Boston."

Mr. Cohen acknowledged the success came after a series of hiccups following the program's launch.

Initially, only families with children who qualified for free lunch under the National School Lunch Program could participate, and then the application process could take weeks.

In January 2012, Comcast adjusted its guidelines so families whose children receive reduced-priced lunch also would qualify and it allowed instant approval for families in schools with the highest percentages of children eligible for the national lunch program.

The company also increased the speed of the discounted Internet services, created a bulk purchase program for community partners, expanded digital literacy materials available online and formed a partnership with broadband adoption program Connect2Compete to reduce prices and expand options for hardware.

While the addition of the reduced school lunch program alone increased program eligibility by 2.3 million nationwide, Mr. Cohen said initiatives to be unveiled throughout this year should help 2013 easily surpass 2012's record-setting figures. For example, families of students in private, parochial or home school settings now can qualify.

For those seeking computer equipment, Comcast has partnered with Engelwood, Colo.-based electronic components supplier Arrow Electronics to provide refurbished desktop or laptop computers for less than $150 in addition to the netbooks it already provides. The computers will be made available through a pilot program in Philadelphia and Chicago this fall, but will expand to the rest of the country in following months.

Community partners also will see an increased role, thanks to the creation of Opportunity Cards that will allow nonprofits and other organizations to pre-purchase up to one year's service for low-income families. Additionally, Comcast created the Internet Essentials School District of Excellence Award, to recognize high-performing school districts by giving them 50 laptops. Winning districts will be announced in the fall.

Although no solid figures are available for how many people received discounted laptops or participated in digital literacy classes locally, the program definitely began to pick up speed at the start of last year, said Jim Lenkner, spokesman for the Garfield-based community organization Neighborhood Learning Alliance.

He said the alliance hosted about five digital literacy sessions last year in Homewood, Garfield and the Hill District. He estimated around 20 percent of the participants contacted Comcast to join the Internet Essentials program.

Mr. Lenkner praised the program efforts but said he felt more widespread awareness would involve more people. Mr. Cohen agreed.

"Internet Essentials is not just about broadband adoption," he said. "It's also about what the Internet can do for families, from finding a job to completing homework and accessing vital health care resources. While we're pleased with our progress to date, we have more work to do to bring more families into the digital age."

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Deborah M. Todd: dtodd@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1652.


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