Comcast will invest $1 billion over the next decade to help close the digital divide among low-income Americans. The company announced Wednesday its plan to continue investment of its Internet Essentials program as it marks the 10th anniversary of the program this year.
Comcast said it will put that $1 billion toward a slew of initiatives, including supporting its new Lift Zone initiative, which establishes WiFi-connections in public spaces, such as community centers. These Lift Zones can be used to give adults and children who are homeless and may not have permanent access to an address, a safe place to access the internet.
Comcast began opening up these Lift Zones in cities, such as Philadelphia and Chicago, in September when many schools and libraries were closed due to the pandemic. The company said it expects to connect more than 1,000 community centers nationwide by the end of 2021. Comcast also plans to continue funding its new laptop and computer donations efforts through Internet Essentials. It will also continue to provide grants for nonprofit community organizations to create opportunities for low-income Americans, particularly in media, technology, and entrepreneurship.
Comcast started Internet Essentials in 2011 to help impoverished children who received free or reduced-price lunches at school get access to the internet at home. Initially, it started as a condition of its merger to buy NBC Universal. Over the years, the program, which costs $9.95 a month, has been modified more than a dozen times to expand the eligibility requirements to include low-income veterans and people receiving public housing benefits. In 2019, the company opened up the program to all low-income households.
Over the years, Comcast has built relationships with trusted community organizations to offer free digital-skills training. Customers can also purchase low-cost computers as part of the program.
“Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across the country,” Dave Watson, Chief Executive Officer, Comcast Cable, said in a statement. “Today, we are rededicating ourselves to this mission to ensure that the next generation of students in America has the tools, resources, and abilities they need to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”
The company’s renewed commitment to the program comes on the heels of a series of initiatives announced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, the company increased the speeds of the service to 50 Mbps downstream from 25 Mbps without changing the price. It also increased upload speeds to 5 Mbps from 3Mbps. In total, Comcast has increased the speed of its service six times over the past 10 years. It started out offering downloads of 1.5 Mbps.
The company also continues to offer 60 days of free Internet service to new Internet Essentials customers who sign up before June 30, 2021. Comcast is also waiving its requirement through the end of 2021 that people signing up for Internet Essentials not have previous debt or unpaid bills with the company. Critics of Comcast’s efforts have complained that this requirement had penalized many low-income families.
To qualify for Internet Essentials, families who are already receiving federal benefits through programs such as SNAP, Medicaid or WIC are eligible for the $9.95 internet service.
Comcast says that it has connected a cumulative total of more than 10 million people in America to broadband Internet at home. With the new expansion of the Lift Zones, Comcast said it expects to reach more than 50 million people with its service over the next decade.