KEARNEY COLUMN: Comcast offers bridge across “digital divide”

Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen calls it a “cruel irony.”

Of the two-thirds of Americans who now have home access to broadband internet, the vast majority are higher income and white, while adoption rates in poorer minority communities are as low as 10 percent.

So as the world moves increasingly online, everything from news to job applications and health care, historically disadvantaged demographics are becoming more disadvantaged. “The people who could most use the leveling are falling further behind,” Cohen said Friday during a visit to Charleston.

The cable company executive was in town last week to publicize Comcast’s solution to this “digital divide,” a year-old discount program called Internet Essentials.

Addressing the three major barriers to access for low-income families, Comcast is offering broadband service for $9.95 per month with no fees or rate escalation, a mini laptop computer for $149.99 and free online and in-person training. For context, that’s at least half as much as other locally available Internet service and as much as half off regular-price netbooks.

The main eligibility requirement is having a child receiving free lunch through the National School Lunch Program. (You also have to live in Comcast’s service area, which includes parts of the Lowcountry, and can’t have recently had Comcast service or owe the company money or equipment.)

Since launching last year, almost 450 Charleston-area families are among more than 100,000 nationwide that have signed up. But that’s less than 5 percent of those eligible. So as school gets under way, Comcast and government officials are touring the country to raise awareness of the potentially life-changing deal.

Mignon Clyburn, who sits on the Federal Communications Commission, said digital literacy is often required to apply for health care benefits nowadays. “It literally is not an option,” she said.

Cohen, who insists the program is more public benefit than “money-making proposition,” said people will realize that eventually.

“Once most people see what the Internet provides, they are not interested in giving it up,” Cohen said.

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Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.