Well-known cable provider Comcast is offering deeply discounted Internet service to tens of thousands of South Florida families — but most of those who are eligible have yet to sign up.
The company’s “Internet Essentials” plan offers high-speed Internet, priced at $9.95 a month, to low- and moderate-income families. To be eligible, families must live in an area where Comcast offers Internet service, and at least one child in the family must be receiving free or reduced-price lunches at school.
Huge numbers of families in Miami-Dade and Broward have a child receiving free or reduced lunch — nearly 72 percent of all students in Miami-Dade, and roughly 57 percent of all students in Broward. There are some other eligibility hurdles (families must not have an overdue Comcast bill, and must not have subscribed to Comcast Internet within the last 90 days), but even with those restrictions, it’s estimated that nearly 100,000 local families qualify for the service.
Of that number, only about 7,000 have signed up since Comcast launched the offer a year ago. Nationally, more than 100,000 families are taking part.
For families that enroll, the $9.95 price is locked in for as long as the student continues receiving free or reduced-price lunch, or until they graduate from high school. In the case of elementary school students, that means parents could potentially take advantage of bargain-priced Internet service for a decade or more.
Roughly one in five American households with school-age children lacks at-home Internet access, according to a 2011 federal government report.
Comcast typically charges in the $30 to $40 range for this type of Internet plan, known as its Economy Plus service. The package offers downloads up to 3 Mbps, or megabits per second. While not the fastest of Comcast’s Internet plans, its adequate for normal use, said LaToya Giles of Lauderhill, who signed up for the offer last year. During a Comcast news conference Monday, Giles said her 6-year-old son uses the web to do his first-grade homework, and she’s started taking online nursing courses at Broward College.
“I’m able to do all of my homework, participate in discussions online, without having to go to the library, or go to my mom’s house, or go to a friend’s house,” Giles, 26, said.
With computer skills becoming more important for children in all grades, and schools offering more textbooks and even whole classes online, the Comcast program is designed to help close the “digital divide” between richer and poorer households. The Federal Communications Commission has made expanding Internet access a top priority, and when the FCC last year approved Comcast’s merger with NBC Universal, one of the agency’s conditions was that Comcast offer discounted Internet to less-affluent families.
The structure of the program hasn’t always been well-received (some low-income advocacy groups argue it should be easier to qualify), but Comcast officials say they are committed to expanding the number of households that benefit. This year, for example, families with children receiving reduced-price lunch were added (previously, only free-lunch families qualified).
“We are doing everything that we can to get the word out,” said Charisse Lillie, Comcast’s vice president of community investment.