Access to the web opens a world of employment, learning, and social opportunities. But for those who can’t afford home Internet service or don’t know how to use this resource, life on the wrong side of the digital divide can be isolating and discouraging.
Just 18% of U.S. households with incomes at or below $14,000 — the average annual income of a public housing resident — have a fixed Internet connection at home, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. By contrast, 90% of households with incomes above $100,000 have home connections. And millions of low-income Americans lack the basic digital literacy skills required to compete for higher-paying jobs.
"If you’re not part of the digital world, chances are you’re falling behind," says Karima Zedan, Senior Director of Comcast’s Internet Essentials broadband access program for low-income families. "Closing this gap is our highest community investment priority as a company."
We launched Internet Essentials in 2011 to help bridge the digital divide, offering low-income families affordable high-speed broadband service and partnering with local school districts and nonprofits to provide digital literacy training. Qualifying households in Comcast’s subscription area — which spans 39 states and the District of Columbia — can receive high-speed broadband service for $9.95 per month.
And we’ve continued expanding broadband access every year. Internet Essentials added 180,000 new households in 2015, doubled the service’s download speed, and launched new pilot programs for low-income senior citizens and community college students.
"Bringing the Internet within everyone’s reach is a natural outgrowth of our business, but it means so much more to Comcast," Karima says. "We believe this is a vital resource that people need to thrive in everyday life."
Those people include families like the Martinezes, who emigrated from Mexico to Hammond, Indiana, in 2013. Leuziel Martinez worked a series of low-paying jobs while his wife cared for their four children; they had no room in their budget for Internet service.
Low-income families connected to broadband service through Internet Essentials since 2011
Their oldest son, Jonathan, used to spend hours in a booth at McDonald’s doing his homework or in the public library rushing through web research in hopes of finishing before it closed.
"When my teachers assigned a research project my sophomore year, I couldn’t think about the work right away. I had to figure out how to get online that night," Jonathan, now 20, recalls. Finding a free WiFi signal was sometimes harder than doing his actual assignments.
"Mom had to bring my two little brothers and sister with us," he says. "Some nights we had to get home before I finished my work, but at that point there was nothing I could do."
Then a family friend told his parents about Internet Essentials, and web access suddenly went from frustrating to empowering.
"The Internet is a huge part of our lives now," says Jonathan, who graduated second in his class from City Baptist High School in 2015. "My brothers and I use it all the time to get our work done faster. My mom pays our bills online. It even helped my dad find a better job."
After graduation, Jonathan enrolled in Year Up, a nonprofit vocational training program that also helped him land an internship at Allstate Insurance. Working with the company’s roadside assistance mobile apps has stoked Jonathan’s interest in software development as a potential career.
And his parents, who used to be skeptical about the web, now regularly video chat with relatives in Mexico and search for information online.
"The Internet gives us huge opportunities," Jonathan says. "Now that we have it, our chances of everything are just greater."
Since its inception, Internet Essentials has connected more than 600,000 low-income households — about 2.4 million people in all — to educational, social, and economic opportunities online. Families automatically qualify if they have at least one K-12 student who is eligible for the National School Lunch Program.
In 2015, we extended Internet Essentials to all families with children in schools where at least 50% of households qualify for the National School Lunch Program.
We’ve since lowered this eligibility threshold to 40%, matching the standard for schools to receive federal Title I funding.
Comcast also doubled Internet Essentials’ broadband download speed to up to 10 megabits per second last year and began offering a WiFi router to each eligible household at no additional cost. Now, children and their parents can do homework, send email, visit websites, or use social media on multiple devices at the same time.
These enhancements, along with our senior and community college pilots (see below), helped Internet Essentials grow by more than 100,000 households from July through December 2015 — more than in any previous six-month span. "We’re constantly asking how we can improve," Karima says.
That includes working with hundreds of community organizations to attack the digital divide from another angle.
"The success of Internet Essentials, which has connected substantially more families to the Internet than all other private sector programs combined, is rooted in its unique wraparound design," says David L. Cohen, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Comcast. "It addresses all three of the major barriers to broadband adoption — price of the service, price of computer equipment, and most importantly of all, a bucket of digital relevance and literacy issues."
"Digital literacy skills are crucial for anyone who wants to unlock the full value of this incredible tool — to learn, find a job, socialize, and just be more connected with your community," Karima says. Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YMCA, and the Police Athletic League are just a few of our partners in this effort.
Karima looks forward to the day when families and communities no longer need Internet Essentials at all.
"I want us to be so effective at connecting underserved people and improving their lives that this program becomes irrelevant," she explains. "Because we would have much lower unemployment, higher school attendance and graduation rates, and more households plugged into healthcare and social services. A greater sense of community and support — that’s what Internet access makes possible."