Comcast in the second half of 2013 plans to introduce prepaid “Opportunity Cards” to let not-for-profit organizations, businesses and others buy up to a year of Internet Essentials service for low-income families eligible under the program.
In addition, the MSO has expanded the eligibility criteria to include families with home-schooled kids and those with students in private and parochial schools. That will make nearly 200,000 additional families eligible for Internet Essentials in Comcast’s service area, bringing the total to nearly 2.6 million eligible families, the company estimates.
Comcast is required to offer Internet Essentials -- which costs $9.95 per month (plus tax) for a 3 Mbps downstream and 768 Kbps upstream connection -- through the end of the 2013-14 school year under the terms of the Federal Communications Commission’s approval of its takeover of NBCUniversal.
Since launching Internet Essentials in September 2011, Comcast has enrolled more than 150,000 families, representing a total of 600,000 low-income Americans (including 300,000 children). The cable operator disclosed the updated Internet Essentials figures last week in its second compliance report to the FCC on the NBCU transaction.
The Internet Essentials Opportunity Cards will provide “yet another way to accelerate enrollment by empowering community-based partners, businesses and foundations to help connect families to the Internet,” Comcast said in a statement. Separately, Comcast is testing out a prepaid Internet service in the Philadelphia region that also offers 3 Mbps service for $45 for 30 days or $15 for seven days.
Internet Essentials is available to low-income families with children who are eligible to receive a free or reduced-price school lunch as part of their enrollment in the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program (NSLP).
Comcast is trying to do its part to close the “digital divide,” according to executive vice president and chief diversity officer David Cohen. The MSO sees dramatic differences in broadband adoption in its own footprint: In some higher-income areas more than 90% of households have Internet service while in lower-income areas less than 15% or 20% of households do, he noted in a blog post Tuesday.
“We have more work ahead, as millions of Americans are still on the wrong side of the digital divide,” he wrote.
Cohen cited a Pew Internet & American Life Project study, released last week, that found 79% of students are asked by teachers to access and download assignments from an online site and that 84% of teachers surveyed were concerned about the growing disparities between low- and high-income students and school districts.
Under the program, Comcast has sold more than 15,000 netbooks to Internet Essentials members for $150. This year, the company will expand that to include Internet-ready desktops or laptops, in addition to the netbooks, for less than $150, according to Cohen. “We’ll start a pilot program in Philadelphia and Chicago soon, and we plan to roll it out to additional markets in the months ahead,” he wrote.
Comcast also will introduce the Internet Essentials Gold Medal School District of Excellence Award to recognize the top 15 school districts nationwide in signing up participants. The MSO will give each recognized district 50 laptops for families or schools – in conjunction with “the celebration of Comcast’s 50th anniversary later this year,” the company said -- with winners to be announced in the fall of 2013.
Among Internet Essentials customers, according to Comcast, 86% go online every day and 97% said their children use the service. The most common activity is schoolwork (96%) followed by accessing news and information (89%), social networking (76%), email (73%) and researching healthcare and government services (65%), according to the MSO’s surveys.
According to Comcast, the MSO has received more than 1 million phone calls to its Internet Essentials call center and more than 10,000 people have attended in-person digital literacy training classes held by its community-based partners. In addition, the operator has distributed more than 25 million pieces of Internet Essentials information materials for free to school districts and community partners.
The operator provides more info on Internet Essentials at internetessentials.com for English and internetbasico.com for Spanish. Parents can enroll in the program by calling 855-846-8376 (English) or 855-765-6995 (Spanish).