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Comcast's 'Internet Essentials' Bridging Digital Divide

WI Staff Writer | 9/21/2011, 1:38 p.m.

Marcia Thompson's two children attend Ballou Senior High School in Southeast. Her son, Lance, 16, is a junior who plays sports and is also enrolled in several Advanced Placement classes. Her daughter, Mariama, 18, is a senior with plans to attend college and major in Pre-Med.

Both students usually stay late after school due to their extra-curricular activities and it's also where they try to get most of their homework done and fill out college applications. They have no choice but to stay as long as they can at school because there is no computer in their home and no access to the Internet, either.

More than half of the 1,200 students enrolled at Ballou are in the same boat, and the school is located in Ward 8 in Southeast where only 3 percent of the households have broadband access, compared to nearly 75 to 80 percent of the households in affluent Foggy Bottom in Northwest.

In Marcia Thompson's case, owning a computer and accessing the Internet are luxuries she can't afford.

"There is a digital divide, and broadband adoption rates are low in America," said Comcast Corporation Executive Vice President David L. Cohen. "The impact is unequal. Low-income communities are denied access to the tremendous vitality of the Internet and the availability of rich, vibrant materials. That's where 'Internet Essentials' comes in. The program is an ambitious, comprehensive broadband adoption experiment that will bring the World Wide Web to low-income households."

Cohen said research has shown that the barriers to broadband access include the inability to purchase a home computer; the price of Internet service and a lack of understanding about the relevance and usefulness of the Internet.

Cohen and other Comcast officials attended the kickoff of 'Internet Essentials' with District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Ballou staff, students and about 100 parents on Tuesday, Sept. 20. The program will be available anywhere Comcast offers service which includes more than 4,000 schools located in 39 states and the District of Columbia.

Future success for Thompson's children, like thousands of others growing up in low-income households locally and across the country, is hindered because of the absence of a computer in the home and their limited access of the Internet.

"Our employees get to see the transformational impact of the Internet on the users' lives," Cohen said. "They see the way people use high-speed Internet and the tremendous benefits. We said, if don't raise our hands and take it on, who will?"

Participants will be able to sign up for $9.95 a month and there will be no price increases or activation or equipment rental fees for as long as a family is enrolled in the program. New members will also receive a voucher when they sign up that can be applied to the purchase of a low-cost computer ($149.99 plus tax). In addition, participants will be able to get digital literacy training in person, online or in print.

Comcast is making 'Internet Essentials' available for the 2011-2012 school season, but Cohen said he anticipates it continuing for at least three years. Cohen said Comcast will accept new program participants through the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

Access to broadband has been described as a civil rights issue by many civil rights groups including the National Rainbow Coalition led by the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson. Research has shown disparities based on income, socio-economic status, gender and other factors.

Cohen said Comcast has been involved with broadband adoption programs in a significant way for several years. These include partnerships with the mayors of Boston and Philadelphia, as well as a digital literacy program for high school students.

"This is the largest and only national broadband program we're aware of. We're launching it across our footprints and doing that at the beginning of school," Cohen said. "Anecdotally, parents, principals and teachers are thrilled but it's too early to tell statistically how we're doing. This is a long-term project and we will have to do this for a while," he said.

"What I'm hoping to achieve is to make access to the Internet fairly available regardless of income level or zip code. We don't have a specific target or number of people (who will) sign up in the program. We're providing an affordable service delivery mechanism and access to transformational 21st century technology."