Comcast's 'Internet Essentials' reaching just 9 percent of target audience
The media giant Comcast Corp. announced last week that 1.2 million Americans had signed up for its discounted high-speed Internet service for the poor.
"Just think about that for a second," said David L. Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast. "1.2 million people is about the population of Dallas, Tex. or the entire state of Maine."
In the midst of the fight to bridge the country's digital divide, it's not an insignificant number. But two-and-a-half years after the $10-a-month service launched, most people who qualify for the program in Comcast's hometown of Philadelphia still have not enrolled.
Throughout the country, nearly 12 percent of the families estimated to be eligible for Comcast's discount program, known as Internet Essentials, have enrolled. In Philadelphia, that figure is 9 percent, with roughly 9,000 of the approximately 98,000 eligible households participating.
Cohen says that is an accomplishment. He notes that it took 15 years for Comcast to sign up 40 percent of the general population in its service territory for broadband Internet.
"Nothing would make us happier than to get broadband adoption in a low-income population equivalent to broadband adoption in the population as a whole," he said. "That's just going to take a long time."
Some residents and tech experts, though, say Comcast makes it too difficult for poor people to subscribe.
Emaleigh Doley, a block captain in the city's Germantown section, says many of her neighbors need a low-priced broadband service such as Internet Essentials. But there are "barriers of entry," she says.
For instance, she points out, current Comcast customers aren't eligible for Internet Essentials. A low-income family has to cancel service for 90 days to get the reduced rate.
"It's just a difficult choice, I think, that it's asking people to make and it seems completely unnecessary, especially because people are already Comcast customers," she said. "Sort of seems like a slap in the face."
Critics say there are other barriers: You can't get Internet Essentials if you have an overdue bill with Comcast. You can't fully complete an application for the program over the phone. And you must have a school-aged child to be eligible.
"It's significant that in the home territory of Comcast, Comcast country in Philadelphia, such a low percentage of the eligible people have applied," said Susan Crawford, author of the book "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age" and a former technology aide to President Barack Obama. "It just shows that this is not meeting a gaping human need for high-speed connectivity at a reasonable price."
Thirty percent of American adults don't have a broadband connection at home (not counting smartphones), according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Charitable Trusts. An even lower percentage of black and Latino adults have broadband at home.
Crawford says those gaps won't be filled until there is more competition and regulation in the telecom industry.
In fact, she argues that Comcast's discount program distracts citizens and elected officials from those very issues. "Internet Essentials is a terrific talking point for Comcast and a way for it to smooth over all the worries about monopolization and gouging and overcharging that we have in this country," she said.
Brendan Glackin, an administrator at Visitation B.V.M. elementary school in the city's Kensington section, says he has heard such arguments before. He and other school officials have encouraged students and their parents, many of whom are in poverty, to sign up for the Internet Essentials program.
"It's still an essential service that our parents and our children need," said Glackin. "As long as our parents and our families are getting the service they need, why they're getting isn't as important."
He adds that some Visitation B.V.M. families have been unable to apply because of "barriers" such as overdue bills, however.
Comcast executive Cohen, meanwhile, says the company is committed to bridging the digital divide. It has aired $48 million worth of public service announcements for Internet Essentials, and invested millions more in digital literacy initiatives.
But, Cohen says, it just isn't easy to reach some low-income residents.
"The program is only two-and-a-half years old. I think we finally got our feet underneath us," he said. "We constantly look at whether there are other opportunities and other low-income populations. We did a pilot with AARP on older Americans last year."
Comcast says it is also considering how to include residents who would be eligible for Internet Essentials if not for their credit problems with the company.
In addition, Comcast is trying to boost participation with a special offer. Eligible residents in Philadelphia will get six months of Internet Essentials for free if they sign up by Tuesday, March 18.
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