A low-cost, high-speed Internet plan officially rolled out by Comcast Tuesday was greeted warmly by school officials who said it will help students academically — and could boost parent involvement.
“You have to have Internet access,” said Eric Leslie, principal of the KIPP School at 2709 N. Broad St. “And for so many of our kids, that’s limited.”
Comcast officials visited the North Philadelphia school Tuesday — the first day for public schools and the first full day of school of KIPP students — to talk to some of the students who can enroll in the plan and their teachers.
About 90 percent of the school’s 350 middle school students are African American and 10 percent Latino. The vast majority, 90 percent, qualify for free or reduced price lunches making them eligible for Comcast’s plan, called Internet Essentials, which includes broadband Internet service for $9.95 a month — as long as a family has a school-aged child in the house — and the option to purchase a laptop computer for $149.
School officials estimated that only 25 percent of students at the school had access to a computer and the Internet at home.
“If more of our kids have access to the Internet in their homes and have access to computers in their homes, this is only going to mean good things,” said Marc Mannella, KIPP Schools CEO. “They have access to technology when they’re here, but for too many of our kids that can’t continue when they’re at home.”
Leslie pointed to a math program called Math First as an example.
It’s a game that helps students with their math skills. Teachers can monitor students’ scores and tailor the games they can play to their needs. Prizes are given according to score.
Every student at the school has an account and can play during scheduled time in the computer lab — but it’s the kids with greater access and who can spend more time online that see the greatest improvement in their skills.
“The hard fact is, the kids with the Internet are the ones winning those medals,” noted Leslie.
Internet access provides many other opportunities too.
Students can improve typing, reading, research and critical thinking skills and more.
“It’s video game design, all the skills our kids will need that we can’t predict,” Leslie said.
An estimated 150,000 students in Philadelphia schools are eligible for the program.
“Now more than ever, access to assignments, grades and other classroom information is offered online — and those who can tap into home computers and the Web are at a distinct advantage,” said Leroy Nunery, Acting Superintendent.
Internet access can also help parents.
KIPP takes part in a program called PowerSchool that allows parents to track the children’s activities in school to check in on things like completed homework assignments, grades and attendance.
Comcast officials said they hoped the program would begin to help close the education gap.
“There is no doubt that the Internet is a great equalizer and life-changing technology — and being connected to the Internet is critically important to society, our youth and our future,” said CEO Brian Roberts. “This program can help low-income American families get online so they can take advantage of all the Internet has to offer.”
A study released in January by the Pew Research Center noted a shift in the digital divide, a lack of access among ethnic groups. Access to the Internet is growing through cell phone use, which is about equal among whites, Blacks and Latinos — but Blacks and Latinos have less access to high speed connections that are of growing importance in the modern world, the report found.
“Some see a new ‘digital divide’ emerging,” noted the report. “It’s tough to fill out a job application on a cell phone, for example. Researchers have noticed signs of segregation online that perpetuate divisions in the physical world. And Blacks and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.”
According to the report, 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of Blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of whites. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of Blacks use their phones for email, compared with 30 percent of whites.
In addition, the report found a greater percentage of whites than Blacks and Latinos have broadband access at home.
Comcast will promote the plan for the next three years, and families that sign up during that period will be able to lock in the $9.95 price for as long as they have a child in school and remain part of the National Free Lunch Program.
Ultimately, the program will be available in 39 states. Comcast estimated that as many as 2.5 million families would be eligible to participate.
For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com for English or www.internetbasico.com for Spanish. Parents looking to enroll in the program can call 1-855-846-8376 or, for Spanish, 1-855-765-6995.
Cries of “phony baloney” echoed off the façade of the Comcast Center skyscraper this week as protestors shouted their accusations that Comcast’s Internet Essentials program hasn’t measured up to its promise.
“So many families don’t qualify for it,” said Dawn Hawkins of North Philadelphia. “They told me I was not qualified because I owed them back money from 10 years ago.”
Hawkins, the mother of two — a 23-year-old and an 11-year-old who attends L.P. Hill Elementary School — meets the main requirement, but said she has been kept out by other eligibility hurdles.
Comcast rolled out the program in September.
At the time, officials estimated that it could bring low-cost Internet service to as many as 150,000 Philadelphia students. That figure was based on the number of students in the free and reduced lunch program, the program’s main eligibility requirement.
It was a figure Hawkins said was “baloney.”
“It’s not going to impact anywhere near 150,000 families,” she said.
Hawkins felt there was too much fine print — intended to keep out the people who needed it most.
“They should bring down some of the barriers for the children in the community,” she said. “Our children, over and over, have been left out.”
In response to the protest, Comcast issued a statement saying it was committed to expanding the program.
“The goal of Internet Essentials is to get more Americans online and help close the digital divide,” said the statement. “Comcast is proud of its groundbreaking program to help close the broadband adoption gap and is particularly pleased that the rest of the cable industry has committed to participate in a similar program developed by the FCC … Comcast is partnering with scores of organizations to raise awareness, level the playing field, and get those students and their families connected.”
Hawkins was part of a group of about 15 protestors with Action United that gathered at the corner of 18th St. and JFK Boulevard on Wednesday afternoon. Several police officers stood between protestors and the glass tower. The city’s tallest building was also the site of a protest last fall that led to 10 arrests after members of Occupy Philly invaded the lobby there.
This week’s protest followed a meeting earlier this month between Comcast officials, Action United and a group of parents — who urged Comcast to drop some of the more restrictive 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 a ban on credit checks.
Hawkins took part in a Jan. 10 meeting.
“They didn’t want to hear what we had to say,” said Hawkins. “When we met with them we asked, ‘If we work out a way to pay the back bill, will we still be qualified? The answer was ‘No.’ So, why put the program out here when there is so many barriers?”
According to a Comcast official, “tens of thousands” of people have enrolled in the program in 39 states, where an estimated 2.5 million families could be eligible to participate.
An informal survey, done by Action United in December, found that of 107 parents who met income requirements, only two were eligible. The majority, 62 percent, had not heard of the program; eight percent had and tried to sign up but were hindered by several things: delinquent Comcast bills, an application process that was too time consuming, or already having Internet service.
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 free digital literacy training courses 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 do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
Comcast Corporation has been named to Black Enterprise magazine’s annual list of the “40 Best Companies for Diversity.”
The publication recognized Comcast and NBC Universal’s employee base, supplier diversity program and the diverse representation of the company’s board of directors as key strengths.
Comcast has the distinction of being the only Philadelphia-based company selected as a best company for diversity.
“We are definitely honored to have received this recognition and we are spending a good amount of time looking to find ways for us to do more in this space,” said Ajamu M. Johnson, senior director, supplier diversity and strategic procurement, Comcast.
“Pretty much across all areas where we negotiate contracts, we have a robust effort to find and create opportunities for diversity-owned suppliers in all that we source.”
In selecting the top 40, Black Enterprise conducted a comprehensive outreach effort to the top-grossing 1,000 publicly-traded companies and 100 leading global companies with significant U.S. operations. The survey focused primarily on the participation of African-American, Asian, Hispanic and other ethnic minority groups in four key areas: supplier diversity, senior management, board of directors and employees.
An article in Black Enterprise’s July edition highlighted Comcast and NBC Universal’s strides in spending with veteran-owned businesses. During 2011, the companies spent a combined $60 million with veteran-owned businesses and provided assistance on doing business with both entities.
Comcast and NBC Universal officials say diversity is reflected in its leadership, workforce, purchasing decisions, programming and community investment.
“It definitely is something that remains [at the] top of [our] mind and in focus across our leadership and rank-and-file members of the organization,” said Johnson.
“I will say that especially in the last 18 months, since we’ve broadened our family and brought NBCU into the fold, I know that we have a renewed focus around diversity and inclusion.”
Johnson says Comcast and NBC Universal conducted business with over 4,000 diverse suppliers which equated to more than $1 billion in spending activities for 2011.
Last year, the companies added two diverse board members, which increased the board’s diversity to 33 percent, formed internal and external diversity advisory councils and increased diversity hires and promotions. The companies also expanded employee awareness and training on diversity, increased supplier diversity spending, expanded diverse programming and increased contributions to diverse and minority-led and minority-serving non-profit organizations.
Johnson says a significant amount of success in the area of supplier diversity is due to robust partnerships with organizations such as the National Black Chamber of Commerce, National Minority Supplier Diversity Council, Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and the National Veterans Organization of America.
This marks the third time Comcast has been named to the “40 Best Companies for Diversity” list since 2007.
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.
Comcast Corporation has announced agreements with four new minority-owned independent networks.
After evaluating more than 100 proposals, Comcast selected four networks — two of which are majority African American-owned, and two that are majority Hispanic American-owned and operated and programmed in English. The networks will be distributed on Comcast Cable systems between April 2012 and January 2014.
“We are thrilled to work with such talented individuals to launch these new networks that will bring exciting and fresh content to consumers,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president, Comcast Corporation.
“Comcast is committed to delivering programming that reflects the interests of our customers, and we look forward to integrating these great networks into our rich programming lineup.”
The two networks in the African-American category are Aspire and REVOLT.
Spearheaded by NBA Hall of Famer and entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson in partnership with GMC TV, Aspire will deliver enlightening, entertaining and positive programming to African-American families, including movies, documentaries, short films, music, comedy, visual and performing arts, and faith and inspirational programs. The network will launch by summer 2012.
“Aspire will be a network that encourages and challenges African Americans to reach for their dreams and will appeal to all generations,” said Johnson.
“Aspire will celebrate our heritage, our groundbreaking achievements and the fearless talent that has shaped American culture. I’m most excited about Aspire creating opportunities for the new voices, new visions and the next generation of storytellers.”
Proposed by superstar entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs and MTV veteran Andy Schuon, the REVOLT network is designed to have programming inspired by music and pop culture. The network, which launches in 2013, will include music videos, live performances, and music news and interviews, and will incorporate social media interaction for music artists and fans.
“REVOLT is the first channel created entirely from the ground up in this new era of social media,” said Combs.
“We’re building this platform for artists to reach an extraordinary number of people in a completely different way. REVOLT will be live, like all great moments in television history. REVOLT will also be immediate, like today’s social networks. We know it was a highly competitive process and we want to thank Comcast for this opportunity to truly change television with REVOLT.”
The two networks in the Hispanic category are El Rey and BabyFirst Americas.
Proposed by Hollywood director Robert Rodriguez and FactoryMade Ventures executives John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa, El Ray is designed to be an action-packed, general information network in English for Latino and general audiences that includes a mix of reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy and sports programming.
The El Ray network will include programming that features Hispanic producers, celebrities and public figures. The network has entered into an agreement to launch by January 2014.
“This partnership with Comcast signals an important moment for the Latino community in this country — we are passionate about creating a wildly entertaining destination that we can be proud of by appealing to both Latino and mass market audiences,” said the principals of El Rey.
“We are engineering El Rey to address a burgeoning opportunity to deliver unique, high-quality and compelling content to a hard-to-reach demographic, and are excited to bring more opportunities to generations of talent, storytellers and dreamers through this special partnership.”
Proposed by Spanish language television veteran Constantino “Said” Schwarz, this network is designed for infants, very young children and their parents and emphasizes the importance of early development of verbal, math and motor skills. The network will launch by April 2012.
“We are thrilled to partner with Comcast and commend them for recognizing the importance of quality education for young children,” said Schwarz.
“BabyFirst Americas aims to bring the essential academic building blocks for kindergarten readiness into the home, making it accessible for families all across the U.S.
In 2011, Comcast made a series of public interest commitments in connection with the NBCUniversal transaction, one of which is to launch 10 new independently owned and operated networks over the next eight years.
Of the 10 channels, four will be majority African American-owned, two will be majority Hispanic-owned and two will be operated by American Latino programmers. These criteria were established based on several agreements Comcast entered into with leading diversity organizations.
Each of the 10 networks will be added on select Comcast systems as part of the digital tier of service.
There’s more to Comcast that just DVRs, high-definition signals and triple-play bundle options.
Over the weekend, the cable giant plans on showing its communal and philanthropic side with the 11th annual “Comcast Cares Day.”
Comcast outposts in major cities nationwide will participate in the day of service. Locally, Comcast will help beautify and retrofit a number of public parks, recreation centers, and public schools. One of its largest projects will be the cleanup and modernization of Frankford High School.
More than 400 volunteers will pitch in at Frankford, and NBCUniversal’s “Today Show” plans on doing several live hits, Comcast spokesman Neal Scarbrough said. There will be landscaping, new picnic-area installations and painting going on, and the gym will also receive a makeover.
Olney Elementary School and other centers in the neighborhood will see similar improvements.
“Olney’s a pretty big project. The NFL Network will also be there to make a presentation,” Scarbrough said. “And we are working with a Hispanic-based [school] turnaround organization. And the East Frankford Boys and Girls Club project is important because a lot of work is done on the inside, and they have redone everything.
“They had ceiling tiles falling down and shades scarred up,” Scarbrough continued. “They will replace all of the furniture and will also do projects outside.”
Over the previous decade, more than 360,000 volunteers had worked more than 2.1 million hours on projects in Philadelphia alone, Scarbrough said. This year, Comcast expects more than 67,000 volunteers to work on the more than 650 projects. There are 39 states, plus the District of Columbia, taking part in Comcast Cares Day.
It’s a way for the conglomerate to connect with the community, Scarbrough said.
“For a long time, we’ve always felt that a part of our philanthropy should go directly to the communities where we work and live,” said Scarbrough. “This is our signature day of service, and we’re trying to have an impact.”
Comcast Cares Day has its origins in Philadelphia. It was born out of Philadelphia Cares Day, a similar community-based initiative of the mid-’90s. Comcast joined Philadelphia Cares Day, but Comcast organizers always wanted their own namesake community cleanup initiative.
“People see the [glass-skinned skyscraper serving as Comcast’s national headquarters] downtown, but we really do business one community at a time,” Scarbrough said, mentioning that Comcast is working on social issues as well, including bridging the digital divide. “We are trying to invest in the community year-round, focused on [nurturing] tomorrow’s leaders.”
Comcast Cares Day will also help several organizations that aren’t always in the mainstream scope. It will spruce up South Philadelphia’s Masoni Center and McPhearson Park, while also replacing the lighting and scoreboard at Camden’s north Little League field. They will also assist a homeless veterans’ outfit in West Philly.
“Downtown, on Friday night, we will have a ‘Green is Universal’ event, where we build a huge virtual garden,” Scarbrough said. “Each person that comes by and makes a [healthy environment] pledge, a piece of the artwork will grow. It’s an interactive, walk-by event, but it really captures the imagination.
“Not every project is about nails and paint.”
Scarbrough believes Comcast’s vision and philanthropy is authentic. Skeptics may view this as Comcast gaining more of a stranglehold on mindshare — and thus, reaping even more profits, Scarbrough points to the bottom line in defending the cable giant.
“It starts with the vision that philanthropy is community-based. Events like this do allow us to be seen, but that is not the purpose,” Scarbrough said. “This is really a give back; it’s about leveraging our relationship with the community and demonstrate that we are here.
“This is really a way to crystallize our involvement with the community. We are building a lot of smiles.”
The locally-based nonprofit Urban Affairs Coalition will address a burgeoning education-related issue when it convenes a teacher-only symposium, “Educating in the Digital Age.” The day-long semester is scheduled for Wednesday at Drexel University’s Bossone Research Center.
Comcast, one of the leading sponsors of the event, has teamed up with UAC and Drexel University for the effort, which will also feature keynotes and sessions by nearly a dozen education and technology specialists, including Philadelphia Works, Inc. President and CEO Mark Edwards and Knight Foundation Program Director Dr. Aroutis Foster.
Philadelphia School District Superintendent Dr. William Hite Sr. will also attend, as will Drexel University Provost for University and Community Partnerships Dr. Lucy Kerman, and International Society for Technology in Education Board of Directors President Holly Jobe.
“Part of what we’re doing is talking about the digital divide and how we can get [parents and families] connected to the Internet, but at the same time, it is a very practical continuing education event for teachers across Philadelphia,” said Comcast Regional Vice President of Community Investment Bob Smith. “There will be a number of workshops were teachers can earn continuing education credits to keep them current in their classrooms. We’ve worked with experts to craft topics for the workshops so that they are relevant.”
Smith has said he has reached out the School District of Philadelphia – a prime partner in the event – and to the archdiocesan schools. Teachers throughout the city’s charter school network have also been invited to the symposium.
The overall topic, Smith said, is teaching in the digital age, and will take into account several revolving issues – paramount among them is convincing low-income families to invest in a computer and an inexpensive Internet connection.
Data provided by digital divide analytical outlet Anson Alex lends alarming credence to Smith’s call, as it shows that while six million students nationwide are taking online classes, a full half of the poorest households do not own a computer. Further, the data sets show that minorities have a significantly lower rate of Internet access, as compared to whites. White households, at 72 percent, by far is the largest demographic enjoying the Internet at home, followed by Hispanics at 57 percent. Black households trail both, as only 55 percent of their households have Internet service.
Also highlighting the importance of this discourse is that 80 percent of teachers feel that e-learning increases the quality of education.
“The main idea is that teachers are trusted, and this prepares them for the future, and the future looks very technology oriented,” Smith said. “The school district made tools online for students, and also made those tools available for parents to get engaged, so they understand how important it is to be connected. This really becomes critical for the economically-disadvantaged students.”
But for this to truly work all the way through, it will still boil down to at-risk families taking on another sacrifice to obtain even a low-power computer and Internet service. To that end, Comcast Executive Director David Cohen created the “Internet Essentials” program, which provides Internet access to qualified families for $9.99 a month. Smith believes, when it comes to educating their young, even the most pressed families can squeeze out ten dollars a month.
“The problem we have with low-income families is that the parents don’t use the Internet for work, so they don’t think the Internet is needed for homework,” Smith said. “And then they also have to make financial decisions. It’s a choice between maybe a pizza a month for the family or the Internet.”
Digital cable TV and Internet provider Comcast has long had a say in the discussion of methods to shrink the digital divide, and the Philadelphia-based conglomerate has recently been recognized by City Council for its efforts, which includes the creation of the very low cost “Internet Essentials” package, specifically targeting low-income and at-risk families throughout Comcast’s service area.
Councilwomen Jannie Blackwell and Marian Tasco co-authored the resolution, which recognized “the important contribution of Internet Essentials in improving the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities in Philadelphia.”
“Approximately 30 percent of Americans and 40 percent of Philadelphians do not have broadband access at home, or access to a computer capable of supporting high-speed Internet use. As a result, they face profound disadvantages in getting a quality education, strengthening their job skills, obtaining news or accessing the kind of health, educational and financial information that is essential to improving the quality of their lives,” read the resolution. “As the nation’s leading residential broadband service provider, Philadelphia-based Comcast is dedicated to bridging the digital divide by narrowing the broadband opportunity gap. Comcast has invested in broadband adoption and digital literacy programs in Philadelphia and in communities they serve across America, including Comcast Digital Connectors in partnership with One Economy, Club Tech at Boys & Girls Clubs and the League of Latin American Citizens Tech Centers…Council of the City of Philadelphia hereby recognizes the important contribution of Internet Essentials in improving the quality of life for individuals, families, and communities in Philadelphia.”
Comcast created the Internet Essentials package last year, and is widely held as the most comprehensive rollout of its kind in the nation. Individuals and families that qualify for the bundle receive broadband service for a low monthly fee, and access to Internet-ready computers for as little as $150.
“In September 2011, we launched Internet Essentials, the largest broadband adoption program in America, providing low-cost broadband service for $9.95 a month; the option to purchase a full-service, Internet-ready computer for under $150; and multiple opportunities for digital literacy training in print, online and in person,” said Comcast Vice President of Government Relations Kathleen Sullivan. “Digital literacy has been a core focus for Comcast for years. In addition to Internet Essentials, we continue to support learning through the Digital Connectors program and technology labs as well as online training for jobs, education, safety programs and other important initiatives.”
The findings of data researcher AnsonAlex.com mirror much of council’s findings. According to the researcher, while white households enjoy a 72 percentage home Internet usage rate, that number drops to 55 percent; another indicator is that while only 4 percent of the richest households do not have Internet access, less than half of the poorest households it.
Sullivan hopes the recognition will lead to a better understanding – and bridging – of the digital divide, including working with the School District of Philadelphia and community groups.
“We’re energized by the recognition from City Council and the additional support and involvement of the Philadelphia School District this year,” Sullivan said. “We look forward to working more with City Council members, the school district, and our community partners to continue to spread the word about Internet Essentials and the importance of connecting students and families to the Internet at home.”
Community advocates with Action United and officials from cable giant Comcast will meet next month in an effort to address concerns about a company program intended to provide low-cost, high-speed Internet service to low-income families.
“We’re seeing that the program has some problems with implementation,” said Elly Porter-Webb, an education organizer with Action United. “Lots of our parents aren’t able to sign up.”
Comcast officials agreed to meet after Action United announced plans for a rally in the lobby of the company’s headquarters in Center City. Organizers hoped to draw attention to their concerns with a rally on Wednesday, but company officials agreed to the meeting before the event took place.
“Like anybody who is interested in making a difference, we’ll sit with anybody, so we reached out and expressed an interest in sitting with them in early January,” said Bret Perkins, Comcast’s vice president of external and government affairs.
That meeting has been scheduled for 1 p.m., Jan. 10.
Comcast rolled out the program, called Internet Essentials, in September.
At the time, officials estimated that it could bring low-cost Internet service to as many as 150,000 Philadelphia students. That figure was based on the number of students in the school district’s free and reduced lunch program, the program’s main eligibility requirement.
In addition, Comcast has rolled out Internet Essentials in 39 states, where an estimated 2.5 million families could be eligible to participate.
Perkins said he did not have participation numbers at this point, but expected them after Comcast closed out its books for the year.
The plan provides broadband Internet access — with download speeds of up to 1.5 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 384 Kbps — for $9.95 a month — plus guarantees of no price increases, activation, equipment or rental fees. It also gives participants a voucher for the purchase of a new 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, but cannot have subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the prior 90 days, and does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.
An informal survey, done by Action United and released this week, found several obstacles to signing up.
The survey of 107 parents who met income requirements found that only 2 were eligible.
The majority, 62 percent, had not heard of the program; 8 percent had heard of it, and tried to sign up, but were hindered by delinquent Comcast bills, an application process that was too time consuming, or already having Internet service.
“We feel like the program was designed without a real understanding of the economies in many of the neighborhoods where our parents are living,” said Porter-Webb.
The biggest hurdle was the fact that most people were simply unaware of the program.
Perkins said Comcast has done a tremendous amount of outreach — largely through the 4,000 school districts in its service area — but also in cooperation with partners in many of the communities it serves.
“We did a mailing to principals at over 30,000 schools to get out the word,” he said.
From an awareness standpoint, Perkins said the program has been a success.
“The whole goal was to galvanize attention to this issue [the digital divide],” Perkins said.
Porter-Webb said Action United stood beside Comcast in its desire to help bridge the digital divide, but hoped ways could be found to make it easier.
“The Internet is no longer a luxury,” she said. “It’s an essential part of daily life.
The digital divide remains a persistent problem in many minority communities.
A study released in January by the Pew Research Center noted a shift in the digital divide, and a lack of access among ethnic groups. Access to the Internet is growing through cell phone use, which is about equal among whites, Blacks and Latinos but Blacks and Latinos have less access to high-speed connections — which are of growing importance in the modern world, the report found.
According to the report, 51 percent of Hispanics and 46 percent of Blacks use their phones to access the Internet, compared with 33 percent of whites. Forty-seven percent of Latinos and 41 percent of Blacks use their phones for email, compared with 30 percent of whites.
In addition, the report found a greater percentage of whites than Blacks and Latinos still have broadband access at home.
“I hope [Action United has] ideas on how to improve our outreach,” Perkins said. “If Action United has boots on the ground, they may have an ability to deliver this message because of what they do. I’m interesting in figuring out how they can help.”
Cable and digital media conglomerate Comcast is serious about bridging the digital divide -- so for the second straight year, it has partnered with Philadelphia OIC and LIFT-Philadelphia to enhance and broaden its comprehensive “Internet Essentials program,” while allowing even more citizens to enroll in the low-cost program.
The crux of the program is Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” initiative, which provides Internet access at $9.99 per month, and access to low cost computers – some as low as $150 – for families with at least one child receiving free lunch through the National School Lunch Program. The Internet Essentials program is partnered with the 40 computer and internet basics classes be held at Philadelphia OIC, 1231 N. Broad St., on Tuesdays and Thursdays through May 15. The classes at LIFT-Philadelphia, 5548 Chestnut St., are held on Mondays and Wednesdays through May 22. Those interested in applying can do so by visiting either location or by calling 215-474-1807.
“For 2013, we’ve expanded eligibility to include families with a student in a private or parochial school that doesn’t participate in the NSLP; in order to be in the NSLP, you have to have a certain income level, so we’re using other ways to verify” a families’ eligibility status, said Comcast Vice President of Community Relations Bob Ford, noting that the program will also accept students from a home-schooled background as well, as long as they meet the economic means test. “We’ve also tried to make it easier for eligible people to obtain the application. It’s created online, at www.InternetEssentials.com, and people can either sign up or have the application sent to their homes.”
Ford added that a third new wrinkle in the initiative is the “Opportunity Cards” program, which allows those feeling generous to purchase the Internet Essentials package to an eligible family.
“All of our enhancements are a direct result of folks coming to us with suggestions. We’ve heard from private schools, heard from community groups; for the second year in a row, we’ve made some modifications with the goal of including more and more families,” Ford said. “We consider the disparity between low-income families who do not have internet access at home and higher income families that do to be a serious issue; it is our number one corporate community investment.”
Ford said the problem is real, and is brought to clarity when comparing an inner-city student with no home internet access to wealthier student who does. The difference, Ford explained, is when a student can’t continue studies or do research online, or can’t search for colleges or a part-time job, due to the lack of internet access.
That’s why partnering with the OIC and LIFT is so important.
“We’ve made this a fluid process, and doing the same thing with our classes. We’ve doubled the number of classes we’re doing in Philadelphia; we’re trying to win this fight and not going to stop until everyone eligible in Philadelphia has broadband access,” said Philadelphia OIC Executive Director Kevin Cafferky, who labeled the digital divide as a civil rights issue. “With this, we are able to get people access to the internet, which will have many effects, including saving them money by doing [product] research.
“This is just one piece to help with what is a larger problem.”