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Comcast eyes digital divide 

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Last August, Comcast introduced Internet Essentials, a program Comcast executive vice president David L. Cohen said would "help level the playing field for low-income families." The program allows families with at least one child receiving a free lunch under the National School Lunch Program to subscribe to Comcast Internet at the discounted rate of $9.99 per month and gives them a voucher to purchase a computer for $150. Three million families in Comcast's service area are eligible, according to the company.

Internet Essentials is a consequence of the FCC's regulation of the Comcast-NBC merger. In its first six months, that forced benevolence hasn't helped the low-income community in Central Arkansas, according to Neil Sealy, of Arkansas Community Organizations (ACO). He's surveyed dozens of his low-income members and found only two who had heard of the program, both of whom told him they called to apply, but never received an application in the mail.

Mary Beth Halprin, a Comcast spokesperson, said her company had been working with "community partners" to get the word out about Internet Essentials in Central Arkansas, naming local school districts and Central Arkansas Big Brothers/Big Sisters as specific examples.

Tiffany Hoffman, former spokesperson for the Little Rock School District, said that the LRSD passed out flyers, provided to the district by Comcast, last August, but hadn't distributed or otherwise promoted the program since. "We can't promote for-profit businesses," she said. Christel Cater, director of programs and marketing with Central Arkansas Big Brothers/Big Sisters, said on Tuesday that Comcast had contacted her "within the last couple of weeks." She said she's enthusiastic about spreading the word once she receives materials from Comcast.

Sealy and ACO are working with ACTION United, a community group in Philadelphia, to lobby Comcast to more aggressively market Internet Essentials. ACTION United executive director Craig Robbins said his group called 500 parents and couldn't find a single one who had enrolled in the program. Most didn't know about it; those who did, couldn't meet Comcast's eligibility requirements, particularly the stipulations that applicants not be subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days and not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment.

After threatening to protest outside of Comcast's Philadelphia headquarters, Robbins' group secured a meeting with the company, where he outlined a proposal, in part asking for numbers on enrollees and goals and suggesting that Comcast contract with his group to market the program in Philadelphia. He said he was rebuffed at each request.

But on Tuesday, almost six months after launch, Comcast did finally release a few numbers. According to the company, it's connected "over 41,000 families" to the Internet and distributed more than 5,500 low-cost computers. Fewer than 500 have been registered in Arkansas and 17 other states, according to the progress report Comcast released.

Comcast also announced that its program is now also available to families with at least one child who receives reduced priced school lunches as well. It also said it would soon double the speed of the broadband connection offered and allow community partners the opportunity to purchase Internet Essentials in bulk to help streamline the process.

In response, ACTION United's Craig Robbins said he was glad Comcast had released at least some numbers, but said they support his argument. "The sad truth is that they've enrolled about 2 percent of the people they themselves claim are eligible and for all the resources they are investing in fancy pamphlets by the millions, too many potentially eligible people either don't know about it or can't jump through their hoops." 

The enrollment period for Internet Essentials remains open another two and a half years.

To register, call 1-855-846-8376 for English or 1-855-765-6995 for Spanish or visit internetessentials.com or internetbasico.com (for Spanish). And let me know how it goes.

This column has been updated to include a range of registered users in Arkansas. Also, a previous version included an incorrect number for the Internet Essentials English line.

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