Comcast to introduce low-cost Internet service for low-income families

About 150,000 children in Philadelphia could be eligible for Comcast's "Internet Essentials," to be announced next week.
About 150,000 children in Philadelphia could be eligible for Comcast's "Internet Essentials," to be announced next week.
Posted: August 31, 2011

Fulfilling a pledge to the federal government when it acquired NBC Universal Inc., Comcast Corp. is launching a program to offer $9.95-a-month Internet service for low-income families with schoolchildren.

Just in Philadelphia, about 150,000 children could be eligible for the service, priced at an 80 percent discount on Comcast's regular rate of $49 a month for broadband service.

The new program, marketed as Internet Essentials, will be announced Tuesday on the first day of school by Mayor Nutter and Comcast chief executive Brian L. Roberts.

Internet Essentials, scheduled to continue for three years, also will be available for low-income families with schoolchildren in Comcast's cable-TV franchise areas in the Pennsylvania suburbs and South Jersey.

David Cohen, an executive vice president and the chief proponent of Internet Essentials inside the cable company, said Tuesday that Comcast had been introducing the program nationally in its cable-TV franchises and that it would be available to 2.5 million to 3 million children in the United States.

Comcast is the nation's largest cable-TV provider, serving many big cities, among them, Miami, Houston, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington, and Chicago, in addition to Philadelphia. Cohen spoke Tuesday to The Inquirer's editorial board about the program.

Qualifying for the service is simple, company officials say. Children eligible for free lunches under the federal National School Lunch Program also qualify for Internet Essentials. Seeking to inform parents about the new program, thousands of school districts have been asked to distribute information pamphlets about Internet Essentials in packets sent home with children.

Along with the discounted monthly Internet service, Comcast will give families who qualify for Internet Essentials a voucher that enables them to purchase a $150 Internet-ready laptop computer from Dell or Acer, two PC manufacturers participating in the program. Comcast says it is subsidizing some of the cost of the computers.

Comcast says it will not charge activation or modem fees with Internet Essentials or require participants to sign a contract. It also says it will freeze the $9.95 monthly rate for the duration of the program.

According to the website for the Department of Agriculture, which administers the National School Lunch Program, children from families with incomes no higher than 130 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for free meals. Nationally, 130 percent of the poverty level is $28,665 for a family of four.

Cohen said that the program was a high priority for Comcast and that it should help bridge the digital divide between middle-class and wealthy families that have high adoption rates for Internet and those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder who lag in Internet adoption. Roughly 27 percent of Americans lack access to the Internet, Cohen said.

The program - or one like it - was contained as a provision of the Federal Communications Commission's 275-page order allowing Comcast to acquire NBC Universal Inc. earlier this year. Extending broadband service to more Americans has been an oft-expressed goal of FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.

Cohen said that Internet Essentials was a "huge positive story" and that "there is no hook with this program." Comcast would like eligible families to enroll, and "we are trying to create an echo chamber where people call the school district or us" about the program.

Comcast said it could not estimate how many people would participate in the program. The discounted Internet rate, though, could be available to participants for longer than three years. Comcast says it will maintain the $9.95 monthly rate for as long as a family has a school-age child eligible for the National School Lunch Program even if that extends beyond three years.

For information on Internet Essentials, English speakers can call 1-855-846-8376 and Spanish speakers, 1-855- 765-6995.


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

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