Why Comcast is expanding its low-cost Internet program to public housing

The cable giant's $10-a-month program will now be offered to public housing residents in Miami-Dade County, Philadelphia, Nashville, and Seattle. 

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Andrea Bryant works on a borrowed laptop at the South Dade Regional Library in Miami because she doesn't have high-speed Internet access at home, in this August 2009 file photo. On Thursday, Comcast said it was expanding its low-cost Internet program to include public housing residents in Miami and other US cities.

Comcast is partnering with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to expand its "Internet Essentials" program to public housing residents in Miami; Nashville, Tenn.; Seattle; and Philadelphia, the company announced on Thursday.

The program, which costs $9.95 per month, offers low-income families high-speed Internet service up to 10 megabits per second, a free Wi-Fi router, access to free digital literacy training, and the option to purchase a computer for less than $150.

With the White House declaring the Internet to be a "core utility," comparable to electricity or running water, last year, Comcast has expanded the program several times to: families whose children qualify for free and reduced price school lunches, a range of schools, and to low-income seniors and community college students.

The company announced the program at an event at Rainbow Village, a public housing development in Miami alongside HUD Secretary Julián Castro, pointing particularly to the Internet's impact on everything from job-hunting to students' ability to complete homework assignments.

"Internet access at home is essential to succeed in today’s digital world on all fronts, from employment to education.  Unfortunately, a cruel irony is at work, as the majority of low-income families, including those in public housing, who truly need the transformative power of the Internet are not connected," said David L. Cohen, Comcast’s senior executive vice president.

The company also provided free laptops to Rainbow Village residents, along with six months of the service and a donation of 15 computers for Rainbow Village’s computer lab. In a corporate blog post, Mr. Cohen said less than 18 percent of households with incomes of $14,000 or less — the average income of a public housing resident — have a fixed Internet connection at home.

Internet Essentials, which launched as a requirement of Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal, has at times come under criticism for enrolling a relatively small number of families, who say costs of participating in the program can be prohibitive. A survey conducted earlier this year by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and researchers at Rutgers University found that 42 percent of people without home Internet access said cost was the main barrier.

As of 2014, 12 percent of the families estimated to be eligible for the Internet Essentials program had signed up across the country. In Philadelphia, one of the cities where the program will now be available to public housing residents, 9 percent of eligible families have signed up.

Cohen, the Comcast official, had said enrolling the majority of low-income families across the country will take time. The company reports that 2015 was its most successful year so far, increasing the number of families enrolled in the program by 30 percent over the previous year, to 2.4 million.

But some families who have used the service have noted its slow speeds.

"I had [Internet Essentials] because [my children] had assignments that they needed the computer for," one parent of a 7th grader in Colorado told the Rutgers researchers. "I hated it. It wasn’t working. It was too slow, it would freeze and they couldn't get anything done. We had it for almost a year. I just got rid of it. I was paying $10 [a month] to not use it."

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also been working to improve access to high-speed broadband Internet, particularly through an expansion of the Reagan-era Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to low-income people for phone service, to include Internet access.

In a move that drew some controversy in January, the agency also raised the threshold for Internet service to be called "broadband" to a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second for downloads, far above the speeds offered by Comcast’s program.

The FCC’s proposed Lifeline expansion, which is set for a vote on March 31, has been divided along party lines, with the panel's three Democratic commissioners saying the expansion was essential to get more families online. The two Republican commissioners argue expanding the program would be too costly and includes some families who may already have broadband access.

According to the Rutgers survey, 8 percent of families living below the poverty line were still using dial-up Internet, while a third-of low-income families below the poverty line are primarily using a smartphone to go online, citing its lower costs.

Cohen, the Comcast executive, has frequently defended Internet Essentials program from criticisms, citing its potential to digitally enable an increasing number of low-income families.

"Today’s announcement will help build a bridge for public housing residents to cross this digital divide," he said on Thursday. "It will also help them climb the economic ladder to greater opportunity in education, employment, and more."

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