More than 400 families enrolled; protestors call outreach a ‘PR gimmick’
Four hundred and sixty-three low-income Philadelphia families have enrolled in Comcast’s Internet Essentials program since it was unveiled last fall, according to a report released earlier this week.
The report provided a glimpse into the nation’s digital divide, in which Blacks and Latinos lag behind their white peers in access to a high-speed Internet connection.
“What we think we have here is the first live research on real American families living in poverty, who do not have access to the Internet today,” said David Cohen, the company’s executive vice president, who also announced several new initiatives that the cable giant hopes will expand the program. “There isn’t any better data out there in terms of the need of this population, and what motivates this population to sign up for the program.”
Cohen, on Tuesday, provided the first progress report on the Internet Essentials program intended to help low-income families get high-speed Internet access.
Within Comcast’s service area, 41,726 families were enrolled from a pool of 47,766 applications.
“We approved over 94 percent of the completed applications,” Cohen said.
The company could not provide the number of applicants in Philadelphia. However, it was on the company’s list of top 20 counties in its coverage area to enroll participants. Cook County, Illinois, topped the list with 5,109 participants.
When they rolled out the program in September, company officials said that based on income requirements, it would be open to about 150,000 students and their families in Philadelphia and as many as 2.5 million people in Comcast’s 39-state coverage area. Those figures were based on the number of students who received a free lunch in the school districts within that service area.
The report follows recent criticism from Action United.
Members of the group said barriers to the program kept out many of the low-income families the program was intended to serve.
They continued to make that argument this week, after seeing the numbers.
“There are too many hoops and obstacles still for anyone to believe that this program will address in any serious way the digital divide as it exists in low-income cities across America,” said Action United, in a statement. “Comcast calls less attention to the fact that only 463 families in Philadelphia out of 150,000 eligible, or just .3 percent, have been enrolled. We continue to believe that the Internet Essentials program is a PR gimmick without real substance.”
Cohen said the real problem was a lack of understanding among many of its intended customers on the importance of high-speed Internet service.
“Digital literacy and awareness remains the number one barrier to broadband adoption,” said Cohen. “All of our research demonstrates that the relevance of broadband, the ability to understand what it is, the value to the family and even to understand what you don’t understand remains a significant impediment to broadband adoption.”
Comcast has partnered with the Urban Affairs Coalition, among others, to raise awareness in Philadelphia. An official there agreed with Cohen’s assessment.
“People get broadband when they need it for work, they need it for school, or it came down to the right price point,” said Arun Prabhakaran, director of government and strategic partnerships, noting that many people have it on their phones and think that is enough. “The reality is you can’t … write any documents of length, write a résumé, fill out an application. And, employers are expecting that people are having some familiarity with a computer. It becomes ever more relevant in daily life.”
Internet Essentials provides broadband Internet access for $9.95 a month and guarantees no price increases, activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a Dell or Acer computer for $149.99 and provides a free digital literacy training course in print, online or in person.
According to Cohen, 5,500 computers have been sold to program participants and about 1,250 people took part in literacy training.
Cohen added that Comcast is hoping to expand its numbers and this year will roll out several changes to that end. Among them: Eligibility will be based on participation in the free and reduced lunch programs; students at schools that provide free lunches to all students will be automatically approved, and the company hopes to cut the cost of computers to program participants.
“Our goal is to do better,” he said.