Comcast is hoping to bridge the digital divide in New Jersey and the rest of the country by providing discounted broadband internet service to families of students who receive free lunches at school.
With the launch of the Internet Essentials program, the company is offering these low-income parents a rate of $9.95 a month plus tax for at least three school years, a chance to buy a Dell or Acer netbook for about $150, and access to free digital literacy training. About 100 school districts in New Jersey are helping spread the word, according to the company.
"We’re trying to prepare our graduates to compete in a global economy, and they certainly have to be tech-savvy to do that," said Superintendent Edward Yergalonis of the Rahway schools, a supporter of the program.
The cost for internet service alone, which has download speeds of up to 1.5 mbps (megabits per second), would otherwise be about $41. Families can’t participate if they subscribed to Comcast internet service within the past 90 days, have an overdue Comcast bill or failed to return equipment. For a student to receive free lunches, a family of four would have an income at or below $29,055.
In the Bloomfield schools, each teacher has a web page for their class, and this year, parents can log in to access their children’s grades. But several families don’t have access to a computer or internet service at home, said Joanne Decker, supervisor of technology for the district. At one school, about 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
"This was perfect timing for us because that was one of our main concerns, that not every home has connectivity," Decker said.
Competitor Cablevision has a similar initiative, but it’s only offered in New York City. In New Jersey, Cablevision for the past decade has provided schools with a free voice, video and internet services package.
David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said Internet Essentials was modeled after a program offered in San Diego by Cox Communications and is designed to overcome barriers preventing low-income families from getting online. He said Comcast made a commitment to the Federal Communications Commission to launch the program as part of its acquisition of NBC Universal.
"We all get to see every day the transformative potential of the internet and how gaining access to the internet through a high-speed data provider can transform people’s lives and in fact serve as a great equalizer," Cohen said.
Comcast provides service in all New Jersey counties, except Passaic and Sussex.
Families can call 1-855-8-INTERNET (1-855-846-8376) to find out whether they are eligible and apply for the service.