Community leaders and representatives from Comcast and the School District of Philadelphia came together Monday at Olney Elementary School to talk about the impact that the Internet Essentials program has had on helping to close the digital divide among families of different incomes.
Internet Essentials, a national Comcast initiative launched five years ago, offers affordable broadband internet service to a number of different residents and users including: low-income families who have at least one child and who qualify for the District’s free- and reduced-priced lunch program; public housing residents and HUD-assisted residents in Comcast’s service area; children in parochial, private, charter, and cyber schools; students who are homeschooled; low-income seniors and low-income community college students; and public housing residents in Philadelphia, Miami, Nashville, and Seattle.
Families can get internet access for just $9.95 a month, and subscribers have the opportunity to purchase a laptop for $150. Since 2011, 33,000 families in the Philadelphia area have signed up for the program, and nearly 132,000 individuals have been affected.
“Access is everything,” said track and field athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the program’s national spokesperson.
Joyner-Kersee, a four-time world champion and six-time Olympic gold medalist, challenged the students to become “innovators, owners, and entrepreneurs” through their internet use and reminded them that through internet access, “you can bring the world to you.”
Mayor Kenney, City Council President Darrell Clarke, District Superintendent William Hite, and Comcast senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer David Cohen were also on hand to tout the milestones of the program. Comcast surprised the school’s Olney Tigers, students recognized for their outstanding leadership skills, with free laptops.
Cohen asked the students how many of them required internet access to do their homework. Every student raised their hand, with Cohen noting that 79 percent of teachers assign homework that requires internet access.
The digital divide that exists between low-income families – many of whom are people of color living in U.S. cities – and their wealthier counterparts prevents students from competing on a level playing field.
The internet is “exacerbating differences by taking the population that could most benefit from constant access to the internet and depriving them of that access,” said Cohen. The Internet Essentials program aims to have the opposite effect.
Cohen said that Philadelphia is ranked fourth in the country among cities offering internet connectivity under the Internet Essentials program and only trails Miami by 1,300 subscribers. Cohen pledged to move Philadelphia into third place within the next six months.
He also announced a $100,000 grant to be distributed evenly to 10 Philadelphia nonprofits that work in digital literacy. These organizations are Concilio, Congreso, the Dornsife Center at Drexel University, Girls Inc. of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, People’s Emergency Center, Philadelphia FIGHT, Police Athletic League of Philadelphia, Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition (SEAMAAC), SPIN-Norcom Community Center, and Strawberry Mansion Neighborhood Action Center.
“Digital literacy is the number one barrier to adoption of broadband service at home among low-income communities,” Cohen said.
Kenney noted that 27 percent of low-income residents in Philadelphia have no access to the internet and that the city will continue partnering with programs that work to further bridge the digital divide.
City Council President Clarke urged students to take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to them, saying that Comcast is a company that “build[s] hope in communities by working with individuals of all types, of all economic strata, to make sure that everybody has a great opportunity to be whatever it is that they want to be.”
Hite clarified that this program is really about access. He placed the initiative into perspective by describing new math and English materials provided to the District this school year that came with online textbook editions. The Internet Essentials program is helping give more students access to textbooks wherever there is internet service.
When asked what the new laptops would mean to these students, Hite, who chose to sit among the students during the event, said that this would go beyond the individual student and be “transformative for the family as well.”