How Comcast is trying to change the cable game

FILE- This March 29, 2017, file photo shows a sign outside the Comcast Center in Philadelphia. Comcast Corp. reports earnings Wednesday, April 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Comcast started the Internet Essentials program in 2011 with the goal of connecting low-income households to the internet.

Since then, according to its website, Comcast has connected 8 million people to the internet for just $9.95 a month. The company has also increased internet speeds for the program from 10 Mbps to 15 since the program’s beginning.

Each year since the program started, Comcast has added to its eligible groups. At first, it was just for families that had at least one child eligible for the National School Lunch program. Later, it added people receiving HUD housing assistance as an eligible group, and low-income seniors in select areas. In total, over eight years, Comcast expanded eligibility 11 times.

Tuesday morning, Comcast expanded that eligibility for what is likely the final time in their biggest move yet: offering Internet Essentials to all low-income Americans wherever Comcast offers service.

“This expansion opens the door to the transformative power of the internet to millions of additional households, including those with disabilities, and all seniors, regardless of whether they live in one of our pilot markets,” David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast NBC Universal, said. “This expansion more than doubles the total eligible population of the program.”

Cohen said the company is particularly hoping the expansion will better assist people with disabilities, and said according to research, people with disabilities are three times more likely to say they never go online.

“I’d argue that this is a population that would benefit disproportionately from access to the internet,” Cohen said.

Anyone who receives any form of government assistance, Cohen said, is eligible to apply. A full list of the acceptable programs can be found online at Comcast’s Internet Essentials website.

Cohen took time during his remarks to discuss the importance of technology and the internet in particular in the lives of people today, and expounded on how not having access to the internet can be detrimental to both children and adults.

“The Internet is arguably the most important technological innovation in history, and it is unacceptable that we live in a country where millions of families and individuals are missing out on this life-changing resource,” he said. “Whether the Internet is used for students to do their homework, adults to look for and apply for new jobs, seniors to keep in touch with friends and family, or veterans to access their well-deserved benefits or medical assistance, it is absolutely essential to be connected in our modern, digital age.”

U.S. Census Data, Cohen said, shows the depth and breadth of the “digital divide” between low-income families and the rest of the population. In cities and states where poverty is high, the majority of households don’t have fixed broadband at home and less than half of residents are connected.

“And the cruel irony of the digital divide is ... the more broadband technology advances, the further behind it leaves people without a connection at home,” Cohen said. “And they happen to be the very people who would most benefit from the equalizing potential of the internet.”

Internet Essentials is more than just cheap internet access, though. The program as a whole includes some other key parts designed to help low-income households and families, including free digital literacy training available online and in person in both English and Spanish, and the ability to purchase computers for under $150. According to Comcast, the company has sold or donated more than 100,000 discounted and subsidized computers to people that need them.

The program could not have expanded, Cohen said, without the building of partnerships with many different nonprofit and local organizations, and continuing the program’s growth will still require overcoming major hurdles.

“Too many people still remain locked out from the world of opportunity that a fixed broadband connection and digital skills training can provide,” he said.

Beginning Tuesday, Cohen is embarking on a multi-city Internet Essentials tour to announce more partnerships with local and nonprofit organizations, as well as spread the word about the program.

“Imagine the lives that we’ve changed as a result of bringing internet connections to all the families,” Cohen said.

Cohen also made it clear that the program has never made Comcast any money, and that other Comcast users have not been and will not be affected price-wise in order to fund the program.

Although Internet Essentials has connected well over 80,000 individuals in the state of Utah since 2012, according to numbers from Comcast, the only Utah County city with numbers high enough to show up in reports, with a total of 2,800 connections made in the past eight years or so. Deneiva Knight, the external affairs director for Comcast’s Mountain West region, is based in Utah and said the company predicts Tuesday’s expansion makes another 67,000 Utahns eligible for the program. She said Comcast has worked and will continue to work with local governments, schools, and community partners to make sure people know about the program and can apply.

“We would love everybody who’s eligible to apply for it,” Knight said.

Learn more about the program and apply by visiting the Internet Essentials website.