All Tech Considered
12:44 pm
Mon September 12, 2011

Comcast Offers A Digital Lifeline To The Disconnected

Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, has launched a new program aimed at reducing the digital divide, or the gap between high- and low-income communities in Internet accessibility and digital literacy.

The company says low-income families will now be able to get a fast Internet connection for $9.95 per month; the question now is whether the effort can overcome the many barriers that keep the poor from getting online.

Comcast announced the program, called "Internet Essentials," at a splashy event in the company's hometown of Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter showed up along with city and state education officials as a sign that this program is aimed at an important problem: improving school performance.

The program will offer a big discount to low-income families, says Comcast Vice President David Cohen. Basic high-speed Internet, which normally would cost around $50 per month, will be available for the $9.95 rate.

To be eligible, families must have a child who qualifies for the free school lunch program — that means an income of less than $25,000 a year for a family of three. Because Internet access doesn't do much good without a computer, Comcast is also offering coupons that will allow these families to buy a basic PC for $150.

Will The Offer Stand?

Many customers have been offered cable deals that looked good at first, but disappeared in a few months. So Cohen bent over backward to say that this program is for real.

"It is a permanent price, not a promotional price," he said. "You don't have to buy any other Comcast service to be eligible for that price."

Comcast is not doing this solely out of the goodness of its corporate heart. The company promised to come up with just such a plan in exchange for government approval of its merger with NBCUniversal earlier this year.

The question now is whether low-income families will sign up. John Horrigan, who worked with the FCC on its National Broadband Plan, says that in surveys, nonusers say price is a big barrier, "but they also cited other reasons, such as digital skills [and] lack of awareness of relevant content online."

That's why Horrigan, now with a political advocacy group called TechNet, says Comcast will have to do more than drop the price.

"You also have to offer additional support services, so that these families become sustainable broadband adopters," he says.

Comcast says it's offering digital literacy kits that will explain the basics, like setting up e-mail and preventing kids from accessing indecent content. Consumer groups will be watching to see whether the company keeps up this kind of support, and whether Comcast continues to offer this price, which is supposed to be good for as long as a family has a child who qualifies for free lunches.

Potential Effect On Student Achievement

The link between technology and school achievement is fairly complicated, so it will be hard to tie the Internet Essentials plan to test scores.

Educator Eric Leslie of the KIPP Philadelphia Charter School says Internet access is key to his school's most important goal: getting kids to college.

"To have that financial aid access information [and] to know your different options for college, you have to be able to navigate the Internet and have that access, and not be afraid of it," Leslie says.

While this could be an important step toward bridging the digital divide, it doesn't help customers outside Comcast's footprint, or those who don't have a child qualifying for a free lunch. Consumer groups say there's still little competition for broadband in many markets, so many would-be users must pay what their local phone or cable company demands, or remain disconnected.

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