Comcast yesterday officially kicked off its Internet Essentials program, which will bring discounted Internet service, discounted computers and access to free digital literacy training to low-income people in areas where Comcast provides Internet service. The cable company agreed to create the program as a condition of the approval of its merger with NBC/Universal.

To qualify for the Internet Essentials program, participants must have at least one child who is eligible to receive a free school lunch under the National School Lunch Program—and in an address at a kick-off event at Ballou High School in the District of Columbia, Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen emphasized the potential benefits of the program for students.

“Internet Essentials helps level the playing field for low-income families by connecting students online with their teachers and their schools’ educational resources,” said Cohen.
Benefits also will extend beyond the students, Cohen said. “The program will enable parents to receive digital literacy training so they can do things like apply for jobs online or use the Internet to learn more about healthcare and government services where they live,” he noted.

Also on hand for the event was FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who cited research from Connected Nation released yesterday, which showed that only 46% of low-income households with children have adopted broadband—and that in minority low-income households, that number is 37%.

“The digital divide is seriously troubling; more troubling now than in the past, because the costs of digital exclusion are rising,” said Genachowski.

He noted, for example, that “When roughly one-third of American kids are offline, it hurts all students. It keeps teachers from assigning Internet-based homework if a significant percentage of their students don’t have broadband at home. Teaching to the lowest digital denominator doesn’t work for our children in our country.”

Genachowski also asserted that “almost all Fortune 500 companies post their openings only online.” And he noted that digital literacy is becoming an increasingly important job skill, pointing to the example of 100,000 new jobs that call center operators have committed to creating in the U.S. over the next two years, including some work-at-home jobs. “These activities don’t require advanced degrees, but they do require broadband and digital literacy,” Genachowski said.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials program offers residential Internet service for $9.95 a month and does not include activation or equipment rental fees. The company has agreed to support the program for at least three years, and participants retain service as long as they have a child in the school lunch program. Participants also receive a voucher to purchase a low-cost computer for $149.99.

To date, Comcast said more than 1,000 school districts have agreed to participate in the Internet Essentials program and share information about it. In addition, the company said it has distributed nearly 10 million pieces of bilingual Internet Essentials information materials and has scheduled more than 60 in-person training sessions for September. The company also said it has conducted 30 train-the-trainer sessions.







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