Cable company Comcast will offer faster internet speeds and on-the-go Wi-Fi access to customers in their Internet Essentials program, a broadband adoption initiative for low-income households, the company announced Tuesday.
Families with at least one child receiving free or reduced-price lunch at school are eligible to apply for the program, as are residents who receive housing assistance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Subscribers pay $9.95 a month for home broadband and Wi-Fi, and customers have the option to purchase a subsidized home computer through Comcast for $149.99.
For Internet Essentials customers, Comcast will increase download speeds to 15 Mbps from 10 Mbps, and upload speeds to 2 Mbps from 1 Mbps, said David L. Cohen, Comcast Corporation senior executive vice president, in a conference call with reporters.
“More speed was the number one requested enhancement from our Internet Essentials customers, and this latest increase will improve streaming quality in the home,” he said.
An Internet Essentials subscription will also now include up to 40 hours of free, out-of-home Wi-Fi access, powered by Comcast’s XFINITY hotspots. This change will allow students to complete their homework wherever they are, said Cohen.
Internet Essentials is the largest of several broadband adoption initiatives by for-profit companies that aim to help close the “homework gap,” the academic disadvantage that students without home internet face when they are unable to complete assignments that require connectivity.
Of households earning less than $35,000 a year, only 56 percent have broadband service at home, said Cohen, citing American Community Survey data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In comparison, 92 percent of households earning more than $75,000 a year have broadband connectivity, he said.
"[The digital divide] has a negative impact on the school achievement of children from low-income families,” said Cohen. “It limits the job prospects for, and workforce readiness of, the entire household—young people and parents alike—and it limits access to healthcare, and to news information and entertainment for the entire family.”
In a survey of Internet Essentials customers, 98 percent said their children use the service for school work, and 93 percent said connectivity has had a positive impact on their children’s grades, said Cohen.
Since the program launched in 2011, one million households have subscribed to the service, connecting 4 million people, he said. Subscribers have also purchased 65,000 discounted computers.
Despite the continued growth in Internet Essentials subscribers, there’s evidence to suggest that programs like Comcast’s may have limited reach in their attempts to bridge the digital divide. A 2016 survey of low-income parents with school age children by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that only 5 percent had ever purchased discount internet service.
“While we’re thrilled that Internet Essentials has come this far,” said Cohen, “there is still much more work to be done.”
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.