Comcast rolls out low-income Internet access across Colorado
Summit Daily News
Gov. John Hickenlooper, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Comcast vice president David Cohen kicked off the Internet Essentials program in Colorado Wednesday morning, a new initiative from the utilities company that helps connect low-income families with Internet service, digital literacy training and computers.
“Internet Essentials helps level the playing field for low-income families by connecting students online with their teachers and their schools’ educational resources,” Cohen said. “The program will enable parents to receive digital literacy training so they can do things like apply for jobs online or use the Internet to learn more about health care and government services available where they live.”
Eligible participants receive residential Internet service for $9.95 a month; no price increases, activation or equipment rental fees; a voucher to purchase a low-cost computer for $149; and access to free digital literacy training in print, online and in person.
Comcast Internet prices are the same across Colorado, starting at about $40 a month by itself or $30 when bundled with video.
The program is up-and-running in all Comcast service areas, which covers 39 states, the District of Columbia and more than 30,000 schools. Across that footprint, Cohen estimates about 2.5 million households are eligible for the new initiative.
“The digital divide, or what I now call the broadband adoption gap, instead of narrowing disparities it is actually exacerbating differentials,” Cohen said.
Across Comcast’s service area, the people who don’t subscribe to Internet services are disproportionately people of low-income, color and for whom English isn’t a first language. “Frankly, people who could benefit the most from having access to the Internet,” Cohen said.
“One of our top priorities is to help spur economic growth in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said at a Wednesday morning press conference. “These efforts include supporting increased Internet access in Colorado communities and finding new ways to harness the educational power of the web.”
Eligibility is contingent on a few factors, one of those being households that have at least one child eligible to receive free school lunch through the National School Lunch Program. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a household of three would have to make less than $25,000 a year.
Last year, 742 of 3,124 students – or about 24 percent – in Summit School District were on the free lunch program, according to Karen Strakbein, assistant superintendent for business services. This year’s count is done Oct. 1.
That test for qualification was chosen because it’s the simplest; “Everybody knows whether their child is eligible for the free lunch program,” Cohen said.
Any initiative that helps families get affordable access to the Internet is a benefit, Strakbein said.
In Summit schools, the district has online subscriptions to things like the Everyday Mathematics curriculum, which students can access from home. Another program allows children to turn in homework or other assignments, while yet another gives parents access to attendance and grades – on a weekly basis, if desired.
“Those tools are being used on a regular basis in relatively high-income school districts. But they are not being used today by kids in relatively low-income districts because they don’t have access at home,” Cohen said.
“We all read about the digital divide,” Tamara Drangstveit, executive director for Summit County’s Family and Intercultural Resource Center said. “Programs that help families get online is crucial.”
Drangstveit points out that Child Health Plan Plus, a health coverage plan for low-income households, is now primarily accessed online. Also, many employers tell hopefuls they can only apply through the Internet.
At the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church in Dillon, day services – including Internet, shower and laundry access – are available to those in need twice a week. Church administrator Katie Romanoski said four to six people use the services a day, and always use the computers in the process, even if they stop by for something else.
“There’s no way for people to really apply for jobs, except online,” she said. “You’re left out of the loop (without Internet access).”
Between all three Summit County libraries – in Frisco, Breckenridge and Silverthorne – 46,996 people used the free, public computers last year, according to library director Joyce Dierauer. Nearly 13,000 people used the free WiFi services, which amounted to over a million minutes.
Users are primarily people who can’t afford the Internet at home and visitors to the county.
Dierauer isn’t sure about the impact the new initiative will have in Summit County. Many of the people who don’t have Internet access don’t even have enough to buy groceries, she points out. An extra $10 a month or $150 for a laptop might be hard to swing. Also, for many of those who need the program, English is not their first language; They might not even find out about it. Another factor: It could be that people know about it, but still don’t want to spend the money.
Romanoski agrees some folks still might not be able to afford access, but says Summit County is a giving place. If needed, it’s possible nonprofits could band together to help raise funds, she said.
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