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Comcast Announces Internet Essentials Program

Cable and Internet giant Comcast announced Tuesday the launch of its new Internet Essentials service, which will provide high-speed Internet access to families with children who are eligible to receive free school lunches for $9.95 per month, plus applicable taxes.

The service, created in response to the Federal Communications Commission's call for more accessible Broadband, will be available to customers who live in Comcast's coverage area, with a few stipulations: They must have at least one child who receives free school lunch via the federal National School Lunch Program, have not subscribed to Comcast's services within the past 90 days, and do not have an overdue Comcast bill.

Comcast's presence is highest on the East Coast, and lowest in the Mountain West, according to company reports.

The program will also provide families with a voucher to purchase a low-cost computer for $149.99, before taxes, as well as access to free digital literacy trainings.

"We know that the three biggest barriers to broadband adoption are cost, digital literacy, and relevance—that many Americans don't see broadband as relevant to their lives," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in prepared remarks at Ballou Senior High School in the District of Columbia. "The Internet Essentials program takes big steps to address these issues. ... [It] will prepare the next generation, create new opportunities for more jobs and economic growth, and will make a positive difference in the lives of many Americans."

The program appears to be the first of its kind offered by a major provider, and could be especially significant in states like Idaho and Michigan, which have adopted requirements for online learning. Other providers have offered similar services on a community-by-community basis, such as local North Carolina provider MI-Connection, which charges the same price for Internet service to families of students in the 5,500-student Mooresville Graded School District near Charlotte. (Read more about Mooresville, N.C., as well as Internet equity issues, in the upcoming fall issue of Digital Directions)

Another FCC partner, software giant Microsoft, also announced Tuesday its initiative targeting students from low-income families, called Shape the Future, which will attempt to give 1 million students access to reduced-cost PC computers, broadband Internet, Microsoft education software, and job-skills training. Like Comcast's Internet Essentials program, Shape the Future also includes plans to collaborate with state, city, private, and nonprofit organizations.

Comcast, based in Philadelphia, plans to publicize the service through a network of more than 1,000 school districts—and 20,000 schools—that in all serve more than 4.5 million students who receive free lunches. The company is also targeting bilingual information to schools and grassroots organizations, and conducting training and train-the-trainer sessions through September.

As of March, Comcast had approximately 22.8 million cable TV customers, and 17.4 million high-speed Internet customers, according to a company report. The company in January completed a transaction with General Electric to form Comcast-owned NBCUniversal, which operates the NBC and Telemundo broadcast TV networks.

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