Phila. is near the bottom in proportion of homes with broadband service

Pastor Hezekiah Lampley offers computers at Morning Star Church of God in Christ for children who lack Internet access at home.
Pastor Hezekiah Lampley offers computers at Morning Star Church of God in Christ for children who lack Internet access at home. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 30, 2015

Dr. Ethel Allen Elementary School in Strawberry Mansion lets out at 2:49, and not long afterward, on most afternoons, 40 to 50 boys and girls stream through the white door of Pastor Hezekiah Lampley's North 31st Street church for free soda, bags of chips, and a quick prayer.

Some days, some of those same kids also climb the creaky stairs to the second floor of Lampley's Morning Star Church of God in Christ, where the pastor keeps six broadband-connected desktop computers.

Lampley inherited the computers as castoffs six or seven years ago, but they are still serviceable for research or writing school papers. As Kysheem, Tianna, Kasim, Gemini, and others looked through the fridge for sodas or waited to hold hands for prayer, Lampley asked them individually one day last week, "Do you have a computer at home?"

Most said no. They used computers at the local library branch, or at a grandmother's house, an aunt's house, a community center, or the church.

And that's not unusual.

The headquarters city of Comcast Corp., the nation's largest broadband provider, also has one of the nation's lowest broadband-penetration rates, an Inquirer analysis of U.S. Census data shows. Philadelphia ranks 23d of the 25 largest U.S. cities.

In the vernacular of technology wonks, that means Comcast's home town has a big "digital divide," with large numbers of households lacking the basic high-speed access to the Internet for banking, employment, communications, and schoolwork that is intrinsic to functioning in today's society.

The only cities on the list with lower broadband penetration were Memphis, in 24th place, and bottom-dweller Detroit, according to the census' American Community Survey, which collects demographic information annually from about 3.5 million households.

Philadelphia's broadband-penetration rate, reflecting households subscribing to high-speed broadband and with access to the Internet, was 64.1 percent, compared with 58.1 percent for Memphis and 45.3 percent for Detroit. San Jose, Calif., near Silicon Valley, had the nation's highest penetration, 85.1 percent, the data show.

Philadelphia also was among the poorest of those 25 cities, ranking third in the percentage of individuals living in poverty, according to the Inquirer analysis. Detroit was the poorest, and Memphis was second-poorest - suggesting an almost direct correlation: the poorer the city, the lower the broadband-penetration rate.

'Hand-in-hand'

"Poverty and lack of broadband access go hand-in-hand," John Horrigan, a former Federal Communications Commission official who helped develop the government's National Broadband Plan in 2010, said last week. "The only other demographic that does not have broadband is older Americans."

Money partly explains it, Horrigan said, saying that realizing how important broadband is to everyday life also is an issue.

Comcast agreed to help close the digital divide in cities such as Philadelphia when it sought government approvals for acquisition of NBCUniversal, launching nationally its Internet Essentials discounted broadband service.

With it, families are helped with the purchase of computers and pay $10 a month for broadband service, which could otherwise cost $30 to $50 a month.

Closing the divide

Since Internet Essentials' inception in August 2011, Comcast says it has enrolled 450,000 low-income families with children, including 15,000 families in the Philadelphia area.

Comcast does not disclose the current Internet Essentials enrollment, which would be less than 450,000 because of churn, or people who dropped service. Comcast says Internet Essentials' churn is comparable to that in its market-priced broadband services.

The company also has not disclosed the number of Internet Essentials customers in Philadelphia, though it says the Philadelphia School District ranks fourth among districts in "Internet Essentials connects."

District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said last week that he had been promoting the program, and that one night recently 100 Philadelphia families enrolled when he spoke about it during a literacy event.

David Cohen, Comcast's executive vice president, said he believed Internet Essentials was "making meaningful progress in closing the digital divide."

Philadelphia is a "perfect example of a city that got off to a slow start in the first year" and then accelerated adoption, Cohen said. Comcast is now offering a promotion in Philadelphia in which new connects - or first-timers to the program - will get six months of free service if they sign up by late May.

Families with children who qualify for the federal government's free or reduced-cost lunch program are eligible. One restriction: Families that did not pay their Comcast bills and have "a past-due balance" in the last year will be rejected.

Comcast's legal obligation to offer Internet Essentials as a condition of its acquisition of NBCUniversal expired in February 2014. But the cable-TV company continues to offer the program and has said it would extend it to low-income families in Time Warner Cable Inc.'s territory if the government approved the proposed $45 billion acquisition.

At Lampley's church last week, adults and children said they were aware of the Internet Essentials program but for one reason or another were not participating in it.

"I heard about it," said Mary Hansberry, who is raising a grandson, "but I haven't heard of anyone who has it. They say you can get a computer, but I don't know of anyone who has got one."

One sixth-grade boy said his mother had heard about Internet Essentials but did not want to sign up because the last time they had Comcast, their bill was getting higher and higher.


bfernandez@phillynews.com

215-854-5897

@bobfernandez1

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