According to government research, 28 percent of Americans don’t have broadband Internet service at home. Of them, about a quarter live in rural areas that don’t have broadband infrastructure built out. The remaining three quarters — 21percent of the nation — however, have broadband right in front of their homes and yet have not purchased it.
In Miami, Comcast offers broadband service to 99 percent of our footprint in the city. In high-income neighborhoods, like Doral, 80 percent to 100 percent of homes subscribe to broadband. But in lower-income areas, like in North Miami, the adoption rate is only 20 percent to 40 percent. This gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is what’s known as the digital divide. Given the opportunity the Internet offers to students and families, the digital divide should be unacceptable as a matter of public policy to all Americans.
Some might say that many homes have a wireless connection to the Internet easily accessible via a smartphone. But have you ever asked a child to use a smartphone to write a report or a term paper? There are many excellent uses for smartphones, but there are certain activities for which they are not the right tool for the task.
We live in a highly competitive digital world where students don’t just compete with others in their classroom or town, but with students around the world. As a result, the importance of being online — and being comfortable online — grows daily. Getting connected has become essential for everyday tasks for families, like doing homework and research, using social media, and paying bills. For example, a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 79 percent of students are asked by teachers to access and download assignments from online sites regularly. In Florida, lawmakers have gone as far as mandating that all K-12 schools have digital textbooks by 2015.
We at Comcast, with support from partners across the country, have set out to do something about the digital divide through a national program we just relaunched in Miami called Internet Essentials. It is offered to families with at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program, and it is available to parochial, private, cyberschool and homeschooled students, too. In its first 22 months, Internet Essentials has connected more than 220,000 low-income families, or approximately 900,000 low-income Americans, to the power of the Internet in their homes, many for the very first time. This includes nearly 120,000 low-income residents of Florida, most of whom live in South Florida.
The reasons for the digital divide are complex — and Internet Essentials is designed to address the myriad of barriers to broadband adoption. Research consistently shows that the main impediment is digital literacy and the perceived lack of relevance of online content.
Other barriers include the cost of service and having a computer capable of connecting to the Internet. In response, Internet Essentials offers low-cost broadband service, the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for $150, and access to free digital literacy training in print, online and in-person. We are particularly proud that, together with our nonprofit partners, we have been able to train 20,000 low income Americans in basic Internet skills since the inception of the Internet Essentials program.
We have also sought to enhance the Internet Essentials program annually since its launch, finding ways to improve the product, expand eligibility and speed the enrollment process. In 2013, we are increasing broadband speeds for Internet Essentials customers for the second time in two years. We also have streamlined enrollment by expanding an instant approval process for families whose students attend schools where 70 percent or more of the student population are eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program.
And the momentum of Internet Essentials is growing. In the last six months, we signed up 70,000 new families — 10,000 more than were enrolled than in the prior six-month period — and more than we enrolled in any six-month period over the past two years.
But even with this real and meaningful progress, there is more work to be done to bridge the digital divide in America and in Miami. With support from partners like Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and The Chapman Partnership, we are continuing our efforts to reach those that can benefit from the Internet at home most — one family at a time.
David L. Cohen is executive vice president of the Comcast Corporation.