Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, a low-cost Internet subscription option available to low-income households, failed to get far off the ground over the last year. The company claims that many low-income households fundamentally misunderstand the nature of the Internet and refused to take advantage of the service, which offers high-speed Internet access for only $9.95 per month.
Comcast says that its goal is to “close the digital divide” by bringing low-income families an affordable way to access the Internet. Early press releases for Internet Essentials described the program as groundbreaking, and Comcast says that 2.3 million families qualify for the $9.95 pricing. Internet Essentials’ annual report to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) describes it as “the largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program of its kind.”
However, while subscriptions aren’t exactly dismal, low-income families aren’t signing up as quickly as Comcast had anticipated. The company claims that a widespread ignorance of how the Internet works and what it is might contribute to the low subscription rates.
“[Poor people] think it may be used for Comcast or the government to spy on them” said Internet Essentials’ spokesperson David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast.
There are certainly other factors involved, but the overall limited success of the program is not disputable. Comcast only signed up about 100,000 families for Internet Essentials, a small percentage of the qualifying households.
To qualify, a household needs to have children who qualify for reduced-cost or free school lunches. Current Comcast Internet subscribers are ineligible, so a family can’t quit their plan and sign up at the reduced rate. Households cannot sign up if they have any outstanding bills with Comcast or if they have failed to return any of the company’s Internet or TV service equipment.
To educate Internet Essentials users, Comcast set up an “Internet Learning Center” on the program’s website, www.internetessentials.com. The center contains answers to questions like “what is social media?” and “how do I set up an email account?” The cable giant also offers free Internet training online, in print and in person, and Comcast is even reaching out to educators and civic leaders for help.
The cable company has not indicated that they will suspend or cancel the program. Their annual report states that the Internet Essentials program will continue across “more than 4,000 school districts in 39 states plus the District of Columbia during the 2011-2013 school year,” and that the program will continue until at least the end of the 2013-2014 school year.
Comcast’s report also notes that qualifying families will continue to receive the reduced Internet rate after the program ends as long as they have at least one child in school who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch.
In addition to cheap broadband access, Internet Essentials offers families access to discounted computers–Acer and Dell is providing computers for $149.99 through the program–and digital literacy training. Internet Essentials’ current standard connection speed is 3 Mbps downstream and 768 Kbps upstream, twice as fast as when the program was launched.
Comcast notes that Internet Essentials may have operational challenges that prevent some families from signing up. To make the program simpler, Comcast created straightforward elgibility rules and offers clear instructions throughout the signup process. The company also offers signup help in English and Spanish, and all Comcast employees train to offer Internet Essentials information and help.
Comcast is pinning its hopes on good educational tools and well-informed employees. The Internet Essentials program certainly offers a major asset to low-income households, but one year into the program, it apparently needs an extra push to become the “groundbreaking” program that Comcast envisioned when the service launched in the summer of 2012.