Five months after Comcast was mandated by a federal agency to institute a sweeping program to substantially improve Internet adoption rates for low income families, only 463 Philadelphia families have activated the service in the cable giant’s hometown, where more than 150,000 families are eligible.
An internal report on Comcast’s Internet Essentials program issued last week shows 41,000 total activations across the U.S. from Aug. 16 to Dec. 22. The program, which launched in September, resulted from a mandate by the Federal Communications Commission as part of the company’s deal to acquire NBC.
Yet in Philadelphia, where 41 percent of citizens do not have access to the Internet at home — according to a 2008 report from the Knight Foundation — advocates are concerned about the program’s progress, and some experts say that a lack of support by the School District of Philadelphia is slowing its potential.
Because Internet Essentials provides discounted Internet access to families of students who qualify for free lunch at schools, the program appears to be seeing more success in cities where there is more school district buy-in, says the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition‘s Arun Prabhakaran, who is Director of Government and Strategic Partnerships. [Prabhakaran wrote about poverty and the digital divide here in October.]
In the Chicago region, for instance, where the Mayor Rahm Emmanual controls the school system, the Internet Essentials program saw more than 5,000 activations during the same period [pictured above].
“The mayor does not control the school system in Philadelphia,” Prabhakaran says. “When the school district is run by the School Reform Commission, and the SRC doesn’t necessarily report to the Mayor, you’re not getting that kind of system push.”
The School District of Philadelphia did not return a request for comment.
The Urban Affairs Coalition is working with the City of Philadelphia under the $25 million Freedom Rings Partnership funded by broadband stimulus grants intended to improve digital adoption in the city. The coalition advertises Internet Essentials to its constituents, but it does not not receive funding from Comcast.
Words from a local advocacy group that fights for low-income families were more critical of Comcast. Action United, which was formed in the state by former members of PA ACORN, last week called the Comcast program a “gimmick without real substance.”
“The simple fact is that there are too many hoops and obstacles still for anyone to believe that this program will address in any serious way the digital divide as it exists in low income cities across America,” the group said in a statement.
“Especially because this is Comcast’s home town, it’s kind of embarrassing,” says an Action United organization program director Elly Porter-Webb.
Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas pointed to the program’s significant progress across the U.S.
“This is a new program, but the digital divide has been around for a decade. We’re still really facing the challenges of relevancy and digital literacy. A lot of Americans don’t know what the Internet can do for them and why they should have it in their homes,” he said in a telephone interview last week.
Action United presented a nine-point proposal to Comcast in an early January meeting, before staging a protest in front of the Comcast Center later in the month, after Porter-Webb says the company failed to address those points.
The group proposed that Comcast institute specific goals and metrics for the program, a more active outreach strategy and a look at long-term viability for the program.
Comcast has so far committed to run the program for a total of three years, but Porter-Webb is worried that at its current rate, Philadelphia’s results will not add up to substantial change. “It’s only a three-year program and after first five months, we are a sixth of the way there,” she says.
Along with the report, Comcast announced several changes to the program last week, including expanding eligibility to students who receive reduced-price school lunch, which the company says makes 300,000 more households eligible across the country. It is also implementing a streamlined, instant approval process for students who attend schools with a high percentage of free school lunch provisions, which could help more easily connect Philadelphia citizens, Prabhakaran says.
The company also plans to increase bandwidth speeds for Internet Essentials customers, provide bulk purchasing for community partners, and expand its training efforts. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski praised the changes in a statement issued last week.
“We’ve met with nonprofit partners and listened to all kinds of feedback from them, our customers and elected officials, and more. We’ve made a number of changes to the program from the initial launch,” Douglas says.
“We can’t solve the digital divide all by ourselves. We need as many other providers and community partners to get involved to help connect more Americans,” he says.
Porter-Webb hopes to see that the metrics match the message.
“Their take is that ‘we’re the biggest, most comprehensive program that’s ever happened,'” Porter-Webb says.
“We acknowledge that, and that’s great, but let’s make it real. Let’s really do this.”