January 31, 2012; Source: Comcast Voices | Comcast just recently released an interim report on its Internet Essentials program, which is designed to help close the digital divide by providing a package of reduced-price broadband, a low-cost computer, and digital literacy training to low-income families. Five months into the program, Comcast reports having signed up over 41,000 families (an estimated 160,000 people) nationwide. The report points to the involvement of community-based organizations as a significant factor in achieving these “gratifying” results.
According to Comcast, “In areas where we had more involvement from our community partners and in particular, strong school district support, we had noticeably higher participation levels in the program.”
This participation included digital literacy training sessions for 1,250 attendees at 300 community partner computer training centers. Comcast announced that it plans to expand program eligibility, increase broadband speeds, and enable community-based organization partners to purchase Internet Essentials in bulk to help reach more eligible households.
For community organizations that provide digital literacy training programs, the enhancements and expansion of the Internet Essentials program should be welcome news. But, following the report’s release, a coalition of labor unions and advocacy organizations issued a statement criticizing the program, accusing Comcast of shoddy execution and of not going far enough to reach low-income communities. Prior to the report’s release, the groups had conducted demonstrations and meetings with Comcast officials in Philadelphia, Houston, Little Rock, and Shreveport. For example, Action United Pittsburgh, a nonprofit advocacy organization, recently requested a special city council hearing to voice complaints on the Internet Essentials program.
The Comcast report acknowledges the barriers to technology adoption involve a “complex mix of low digital literacy, perceived lack of relevance of online content, and the need for low-cost, good quality computers and Internet service.” Add to this list the complexity of reaching a consensus among groups with competing labor, business, and community agendas. –John Hoffman