Comcast Offers Digital Lifeline To Disconnected The cable giant now offers Internet access to low-income families for $9.95 per month. Stipulated by its merger with NBCUniversal, the effort is meant to help children access resources they need for school. But families need more than cheap Internet access to bridge the digital divide, experts say.
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Comcast Offers A Digital Lifeline To The Disconnected

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Comcast Offers A Digital Lifeline To The Disconnected

Comcast Offers A Digital Lifeline To The Disconnected

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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.


NORRIS: Comcast, the nation's largest cable operator, has launched a new program meant to shrink the digital divide. The company says it will offer low-income families a fast Internet connection for about $10 a month.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the question now is whether this effort can overcome the many other barriers that keep the poor from getting online.

LARRY ABRAMSON: Comcast announced the new program at a splashy event in the company's hometown of Philadelphia. Mayor Michael Nutter showed up, along with city and state education officials, as a sign that this program is aimed at an important problem: improving school performance.

Comcast vice president David Cohen says the new Internet Essentials Program will offer a big discount to low-income families.

DAVID COHEN: So it's a, you know, call it a 47- to $50-a-month product that is going to be made available to this population for 9.95 a month.

ABRAMSON: Families must have a child who qualifies for the free school lunch program - that means an income of less than $25,000 a year for a family of three. Internet access doesn't do you much good without a computer. Comcast is offering coupons that will allow these families to buy a basic PC for $150.

Now, many of us have been offered cable deals that looked good at first, but disappear in a few months. So, Comcast's David Cohen bent over backwards to say that this is for real.

COHEN: It is a permanent price, not a promotional price. And, in fact, you don't have to buy any other Comcast service to be eligible for that price.

ABRAMSON: Comcast is not doing this solely out of the goodness of its corporate heart. The company promised to come up with just such a plan in exchange for government approval of its merger with NBCUniversal earlier this year. The question now is whether low-income families will sign up.

John Horrigan worked with the Federal Communications Commission on its National Broadband Plan. He says that in surveys non-users do say price is a big barrier.

JOHN HORRIGAN: But they also cited other reasons, such as digital skills, lack of awareness of relevant content online.

ABRAMSON: That's why Horrigan, now with a group called TechNet, says Comcast will have to do a lot more than drop the price.

HORRIGAN: You also have to offer additional support services, so that these families become sustainable broadband adopters.

ABRAMSON: Comcast says it's offering digital literacy kits that will explain the basics. How do you set up your email, how can you keep your kids from accessing indecent content?

Consumer groups will be watching closely to see whether the company keeps up this kind of support, and whether Comcast continues to offer this price. It's supposed to be good for as long as a family has a child that qualifies for free lunch.

The link between technology and school achievement is pretty complicated, so it will be hard to tie the Internet Essentials plan to test scores. Educator Eric Leslie, of the KIPP Philadelphia Charter School, says Internet access is key to his school's most important goal: getting kids to college.

ERIC LESLIE: To have that financial aid access information, to know your different options for college, you have to be able to navigate the Internet and have that access, and not be afraid of it. So doing that with our parents are critically important.

ABRAMSON: While this could be an important step toward bridging the digital divide, it does not help customers outside of Comcast's footprint, or those who don't have a child qualifying for a free lunch. Consumer groups say there's still little competition for broadband in many markets. So, many would-be users must pay what their local phone or cable company demands, or remain disconnected.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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