Comcast expands reach of Internet Essentials

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

In its effort to bridge the digital divide, Internet Essentials, Comcast’s six-year-old program for helping low-income families get online, has reached the milestone of connecting one million households and four million individuals to broadband service, company officials announced Tuesday. Philadelphia ranks third among the nation’s cities in the number of households connected to the internet through Internet Essentials, and Pennsylvania ranks fourth among the states. In the city, 31,000 families, comprising about 125,000 people, receive the $9.95-a-month service. For the greater Philadelphia area, the number is 47,000 families, or about 190,000 individuals. In Pennsylvania, 68,000 households – or about 272,000 people – use the program. In a press call on Monday, David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, said that Internet Essentials has reached "more homes than all other similar programs combined by several orders of magnitude." "When we launched this six years ago, we had no idea how it would be received," Cohen said. A Comcast survey of users indicated that 98 percent said their children used the internet service for schoolwork, and 93 percent said they thought the program had a positive impact on their child’s grades. Although Cohen said he was "thrilled" with that result, he also found it to be a "depressing statistic, as we think about what those children were doing to do their homework before they had internet at home and about the millions even today who remain on the wrong side of the digital divide." According to the American Community Survey, just 56 percent of those with household incomes less than $35,000 had internet access, compared to 92 percent of families with incomes above $75,000. Being on the wrong side of the digital divide, Cohen said, "has a negative impact on the scholastic achievement of children in low-income families, limits family earning power, access to health care, news, information, and entertainment." Cohen said he was pleased with the growth of the program in Philadelphia, which he said got off to a "slow start" in 2011 because of internal issues in the School District and conflicts between the then-superintendent and city government. Cohen mentioned no names, but the school superintendent at the time was Arlene Ackerman. "We didn’t have the right environment in Philadelphia to be able to get off to a good start," he said. But since the arrival of Superintendent William Hite, "the School District has been an enthusiastic partner." Philadelphia, Comcast’s corporate home, moved from being in the top 20 cities, which Cohen called "embarrassing," to its number three spot. "It’s safe to say that Philadelphia is now enjoying to a large extent the benefits of this program," he said. Cohen said that Comcast is adding new features to Internet Essentials: an increase in service speeds that allows for better streaming on multiple devices; 40 hours of free out-of-home wireless access to Xfinity WiFi hotspots; and an expansion – from five cities to 12 – of a pilot program for low-income senior citizens. Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the track star and six-time Olympic medalist, will continue for a second year as the program’s national spokeswoman. "The digital divide is a big challenge," said Joyner-Kersee, who runs a foundation and community center in East St. Louis, Illinois. This program "gives kids and families access to a level playing field." Expansion of the program has accelerated in the first six months of this year, with more people signing up than in any previous six-month period. Besides school districts, the program partners with community-based organizations, libraries, and elected officials, Cohen said. "There is still more work to be done," Cohen said. "Far too many families remain on the wrong side of the digital divide. Connecting them is part of our core mission."