Comcast boosts enrollment in Internet Essentials

Comcast's "Internet Essentials" provides the poor with low-cost access to the Web.
Comcast's "Internet Essentials" provides the poor with low-cost access to the Web.
Posted: September 21, 2012

After a slow start, Comcast Corp. says it has enrolled 100,000 poor families nationwide into its discounted Internet program. There are about 1,450 families in Philadelphia participating, triple the number from late last year.

Internet Essentials - offering Internet service at a 79 percent discount, or $9.95 a month, to families with school-age children - remains a work in progress, Comcast says. The company is holding news conferences around the nation, and one event is scheduled Friday morning at Constitution High School in Philadelphia.

Mayor Nutter, Comcast chief executive Brian L. Roberts, schools Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., and Tony Dungy, the former Indianapolis Colts coach and current NBC Sports analyst, who will be the national spokesman for Internet Essentials, are expected to attend the event. Dungy and his wife, Lauren, operate a family foundation that works with low-income families and youth.

In early 2011, Comcast volunteered to offer Internet Essentials in its negotiations with the Federal Communications Commission to acquire control of NBCUniversal.

The program is designed to address the low adoption rate of broadband service in low-income neighborhoods - a result partly of the cost of an Internet service and a computer. In Philadelphia, Comcast's least expensive entry-level, stand-alone Internet service costs $47 a month, which includes the modem rental, a company spokesman said.

In some city neighborhoods, fewer than 20 percent of the households subscribe to a high-speed Internet service; in some suburban areas, more than 80 percent of the households do.

Comcast says it has found that the biggest barrier to Internet Essentials' adoption is that many people in poor neighborhoods don't understand the Internet.

"They think it may be used for Comcast or the government to spy on them," said David Cohen, the program's chief booster and an executive vice president at Comcast.

Other officials say many residents believe that the discounted service is a scam and don't apply, or haven't heard about it. Comcast has marketed the program through school districts and now says it is widening its contacts.

The cable company estimates that 2.3 million families nationwide are eligible for Internet Essentials, with about 40,000 of those families in the Philadelphia School District and an additional 60,000 in Pennsylvania suburbs and South Jersey.

Comcast says that throughout the Philadelphia region, including the city, 3,250 families are participating, or about 3.3 percent of those eligible.

This is far below Comcast's overall 36 percent market penetration for Xfinity Internet. If Comcast were to match the 36 percent penetration with Internet Essentials, it would have 36,000 participants in the Philadelphia area and 828,000 nationwide. Comcast reached the 36 percent market share over 15 years, Cohen noted.

The company, Cohen said, was seeking "respected voices" in communities to talk about the importance of the Internet to education.

"I love this program," said Cohen, a former chief of staff to then-mayor Ed Rendell. "I can't tell you how proud I am that we have signed up 100,000 families to the Internet."

Eligibility for Internet Essentials is based on whether a child participates in the federal free or reduced-cost lunch program. If a child participates, the family qualifies for Internet Essentials.

There are restrictions. A family does not qualify if it already subscribes to a Comcast Internet service or has an unpaid cable-TV bill.

Comcast said earlier this year that only 463 families in Philadelphia were participating in the program and attributed the low number to the leadership turmoil in the Philadelphia School District, which failed to order sufficient brochures and other literature for its students.

"Nobody was happy," Cohen said. "We weren't happy. The mayor wasn't happy. The school district wasn't happy."

Cohen said the school district included literature on Internet Essentials in report cards earlier this year, which brought the program to the attention of parents looking at their children's grades.

Craig Robbins, executive director of Action United, a community organization funded by members, said he believes that the participation should be higher. "You can't rely on a state-funded school district in chaos to make it work," he said.

One success story is the Independence Charter School, which has 30 families enrolled in Internet Essentials.

Initially, "people thought it was too good to be true and a scam," said Richard Trzaska, chief executive officer of Independence Charter, an 800-student school on the 1600 block of Lombard Street.

To overcome that perception, Jenny Hoedeman-Eiteljorg, the school's family and community partnerships coordinator, individually called the 275 eligible families to tell them that it was the real deal.

Sheerita Wilson, 25, of South Philadelphia, is one of the parents. Her son Zaahid is 7 years old. Wilson said she heard about the program on the radio and applied. She said her son was upset when he came home and could not have access to the Internet, which she says he uses for math and spelling. "You can't beat $9.95 a month," she said.


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

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