This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Comcast announced Tuesday that it has expanded its low-cost online access program Internet Essentials to a wider pool of people, adding eligibility to families who receive SNAP benefits, Medicaid, Social Security Disability, low-income seniors and several other categories — effectively offering broadband connection to all low-income people in its service area.
These changes, the largest since the program was founded, will make three million households newly eligible, officials said. In its eight years of existence, the program has connected eight million people from two million households.
“This expansion is the culmination of an audacious goal we set eight years ago, which was to meaningfully and significantly close the digital divide for low-income Americans,” said David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast NBCUniversal, in a statement. “The internet is arguably the most important technological innovation in history, and it is unacceptable that we live in a country where millions of families and individuals are missing out on this life-changing resource. Whether the internet is used for students to do their homework, adults to look for and apply for new jobs, seniors to keep in touch with friends and family, or veterans to access their well-deserved benefits or medical assistance, it is absolutely essential to be connected in our modern, digital age.”
Locally, Internet Essentials has connected 72,000 households in Philadelphia in the last year, a nearly 47% increase from last year. Now, about 288,000 individuals are connected. Statewide, Internet Essentials has connected 170,000 households in Pennsylvania, a 50% increase from last year and bringing the total to 680,000 individuals. Philadelphia is the poorest of the country’s 10 most populous cities.
Now, to be eligible, applicants only need to show they are participating in at least one of a dozen different federal assistance programs. Before, eligibility was limited to those households with a student eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program, live in public housing or receive HUD housing assistance, including Section 8 vouchers, or participate in the Veterans Pension Program, as well as low-income seniors and community college students in select pilot markets.
“Comcast’s investment in increasing access to the internet and digital literacy training in our community has been vital to the students and families that we serve,” said Carolina Cabrera DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Congreso, in a statement. “We are proud to partner with Comcast and support their efforts to ensure that everyone has equal access to the information, resources and opportunities available through the internet – because we have seen first-hand how internet access can change lives for the better.”
The company cited U.S. Census data showing that households living in cities with the highest poverty rates are up to 10 times more likely than those in higher earning communities not to have fixed broadband at home. For example, in Palo Alto, California, or Bethesda, Maryland – where poverty rates are very low – 94 percent of households are connected. But in Trenton, New Jersey, and Flint, Michigan, with high poverty rates, only about 40 percent of households are connected. “That gap of more than 50 points defines the digital divide in this country,” said a Comcast press release.
Barriers in low-income communities go beyond simple cost, and include a lack of digital awareness and fear of the internet.
In addition to making the low-cost broadband access available, since 2011 Comcast has invested more than $650 million to support digital literacy training and awareness, reaching more than 9.5 million low-income Americans. In addition, the company has either sold or donated more than 100,000 discounted and heavily subsidized computers to families and veterans that need one.
Under the program, eligible applicants can access free digital literacy training and have the option to buy an Internet-ready computer for less than $150; and low-cost, high-speed Internet service for $9.95 a month plus tax. The program is structured as a partnership between Comcast and tens of thousands of school districts, libraries, elected officials, and nonprofit community partners.
For more information, or to apply for the program in seven different languages, visit www.internetessentials.com or call 855-846-8376. Spanish-only speakers can call 855-765-6995.