Framing access to broadband Internet access as the newest frontier in the civil rights battle, Comcast celebrated the second year of its Internet Essentials program on Friday – announcing Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy as the program’s new spokesman.
“For young people of color today, Internet access is … important to their future, to their ability to break the cycle of poverty,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president at Comcast, agreeing with a characterization by a United Nation’s report that declared access a civil rights issue. “Access to the Internet, the leveling of the playing field, improving access to education, healthcare, vocational opportunities, news, information, entertainment, that’s the unfairness we are trying to address.”
Officials said they hoped to expand the program’s reach this year. It gives parents with school aged children who participate in the free or reduced lunch program broadband Internet for $9.95 a month, for as long as the child is of school age. Typically, broadband costs between $40 and $50 per month.
“For the cost of a pizza you are now putting the world at your child’s fingertips,” said Brian Roberts, Comcast chairman, president and CEO.
The company’s renewed focus on the program, aimed at bringing broadband to low-income homes, comes several weeks after the Federal Communications Commission released a report on broadband access. It was critical of the nation’s broadband infrastructure and highlighted the digital divide, which leaves low-income households without access to high-speed Internet.
A report released earlier this year by the Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW), estimated that between 40 and 60 percent of Philadelphians have broadband at home. That breaks down to 44 percent of whites; 43 percent of Blacks and 11 percent of Latinos.
But, those figures varied widely according to zip code — Center City residents had a much higher percentage of people with broadband, 80 percent or higher — than did many areas of North and West Philadelphia, which had broadband subscription rates as low as 20 percent.
A display of the map included in that report served as the background for Friday’s press conference held at Constitution High School.
“The map says it all,” said Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite. “The digital divide is real.”
According to Cohen, in Internet Essential’s first year, the program signed up about 100,000 subscribers across the country. In Pennsylvania, there are roughly 4,500 subscribers, about 3,500 in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, and just under 1,500 in Philadelphia, he said.
Roberts added that he hoped everyone who met qualifications would take the opportunity.
“The goal is to get this everywhere,” he said. “It’s all about education.”
Though widely acclaimed, Internet Essentials did have some critics in Philadelphia when Comcast unveiled the program last year.
Action United, a local community advocacy group, urged Comcast to drop some of the eligibility requirements. Among their suggestions: a commitment to enrolling 75,000 families in Philadelphia, creating payment plans for customers who owe back bills, allowing existing Comcast customers to take part and ban credit checks.
Internet Essentials provides broadband Internet access for $9.95 a month and guarantees no price increases, and no 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.
To be eligible, in addition to having a child in the free lunch program, participants must live where Comcast offers Internet service, have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days, and not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.