The second year of Internet Essentials kicked off Thursday at Chimborazo Elementary School in Church Hill at an event attended by state, local and federal officials, including Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Federal Trade Commission commissioner Robert McDowell.
Kyle McSlarrow, president of Comcast/NBC Universal, says the program — a significant commitment of resources for the company — is based on needs identified by numerous national studies conducted by various nonpartisan think tanks, including the Pew Research Center.
Those groups, McSlarrow says, “all basically came out with a consistent answer, which is there are barriers to broadband adoption.”
In fact, he says, there are three of them that this program attempts to confront simultaneously.
A significant barrier for many households, especially in Richmond and other urban areas, is the monthly “cost of the Internet,” which can range from $40 to $100 or more. The Comcast program provides Internet for $9.95 a month to any family whose child is eligible for the federal free or reduced-cost lunch program that uses poverty as an qualifier for participation.
The lack of a computer at home, a second impediment, also is considered by the program, which subsidizes the purchase of a machine with vouchers that bring the cost down to about $150. “People often forget that piece: It doesn’t do you any good to have broadband if you don’t have a computer,” McSlarrow says.
But first among the barriers, he says, perhaps the most significant obstacle, is also the toughest to deal with: “People just did not understand the Internet — they might even be a little afraid of it and didn’t understand it — or they just didn’t think it was relevant to their lives.”
To confront that issue, Internet Essentials partners with various community organizations and local government-operated services like public libraries to promote and offer digital literacy classes. In addition to the Richmond Public Library, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the William Byrd Community House are also offering classes partnered with the Comcast program.
Patti Parks, manager at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library on Franklin Street, was at the kickoff and says that Internet Essentials fits nicely with the classes they’d already offered.
“It’s about getting more people access, it’s about doing what we do best, which is teaching and giving people the opportunity to learn how to use the Internet,” Parks says. “This is what we do anyway, but [Comcast] is coming to us to see if we can help promote a part of the program.”
Internet Essentials was used by more than 1,800 families in Virginia during its first year, and McSlarrow expects it to capture thousands more this year, expanding broadband access to a population in critical need of technology that has become necessary for everything from doing homework to applying for a job.
Additionally, the program already was rolled out in the company’s entire service footprint, meaning that more than 100,000 families nationwide used Internet Essentials.
The program is “the largest and most comprehesive broadband adoption program in the country,” according to Alisha B. Martin, a Comcast spokeswoman.