Comcast Corporation on Tuesday announced faster download speeds and other enhancement to its Internet Essentials program, which provides low-cost high-speed Internet for low-income customers across the nation and in South Florida, one of the program’s largest markets.
Now entering its fifth year, Internet Essentials has connected more than 274,000 low-income Floridians — including 182,000 in South Florida — to online access at home. This program provides $9.95 Internet access to low-income families as well as the opportunity to buy an Internet-ready laptop for under $150; eligible families must have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program, including public, parochial, private, charter and home-schooled students.
The company said Tuesday it is doubling the service’s download Internet speed to 10 Mbps and providing a free Wi-Fi router, which together will help customers power multiple devices simultaneously and save money on monthly wireless bills, said David L. Cohen, Comcast Corporation senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, in an interview at the Miami Herald on Tuesday. The company is also launching a pilot program in Palm Beach County to study opening up the program to low-income seniors.
The need for a senior program, where the digital divide is also wide, came to light in feedback from customers and nonprofit partners, Cohen said. According to Pew Research Center, 47 percent of seniors aged 65 and older have high-speed Internet at home. But when it comes to income level, only 25 percent of seniors with household incomes below $30,000 have home broadband, compared to 82 percent of seniors with household incomes at or above $75,000.
“That 60 percentage point difference is the senior digital divide,” said Cohen. “And it has become crystal clear that a barrier to senior adoption is digital literacy. Only about 18 percent think they know enough about the Internet to be able to use it,” said Cohen. In the pilot program, in addition to providing low-cost Internet and laptops, Comcast is putting together a web of nonprofit agencies to help with outreach and digital training, he said. The company’s goal is to expand the senior program nationally.
In just four years, Internet Essentials has reached nearly 25 percent of its estimated eligible population in Florida, which is now ranked second in the nation for Internet Essentials adoption. Also, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach County School Districts are all in the top five best performing school districts in the country for leading the way in closing the digital divide with Internet Essentials, Comcast said. Miami-Dade has the highest penetration rate and the second highest number of connections among the top 50 largest school districts in the country.
In Miami-Dade, almost 30,000 families, or 115,000 people, are part of the program. “The support of the school system is unbelievable important, and [Miami-Dade Public Schools] Superintent Carvalho has been one of the strongest supporters of this program nationally,” said Cohen.
To receive the faster Internet speed, Internet Essentials customers need to reboot their cable modems. Existing customers who would like a Wi-Fi router can call the dedicated call center and either request to have one shipped to them for free, or they can schedule a free professional installation. New customers will have the option to receive a Wi-Fi router when they sign up on Internetessentials.com. In addition, all families with students in schools that have 50 percent or more in the free lunch program (20,000 schools in Comcast’s service area) will be eligible for the program, as well as families in any school who meet the free lunch program criteria.
In 2014, Comcast launched four new Internet Essentials Digital Learning Zones in South Florida at ASPIRA, Boys & Girls Clubs of Miami-Dade, Chapman Partnership and Overtown Youth Center, which provide low-income students and families digital literacy training. Comcast aims to help complete the continuum of connectivity, in which students spend the school day in wired classrooms, stay connected after school in Learning Zones and end their days connected at home, where families have online access through the Internet Essentials program, Cohen said.
Nationally, 500,000 families have signed up, covering more than 2 million low-income Americans, Cohen said. “That is several orders of magnitude greater than all of the private sector broadband programs that have been implemented across this country combined.” Cohen would not say how much Comcast has invested in Internet Essentials other than “a multiple $100 million investment.” Comcast has invested more than $240 million in cash and support to provide digital literacy training — “that’s the differentiator,” Cohen said. “I do think we are making a difference in hundreds of thousands of households, in millions of lives.”
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