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October 11. 2013 9:54PM

Comcast offers $10 broadband to help poor children cross digital divide


Arek Dowang, a fifth grader at Bakersville School, tests a Samsung Ativ Tab 3, tablet computer, during the Comcast Digital Opportunity Symposium, "Internet Essentials", held at Comcast's Northeastern Division Headquarters, in Manchester, on Friday. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER — Children from low-income families "are toast without" Internet access.

That's the view of Dr. Robert T. McLaughlin, an education consulant with the state Department of Education and co-chairman of the Digital Opportunity Consortium, a nonprofit group working to expand the reach of the Internet.

McLaughlin was one of the speakers who addressed about 70 educators from across the state on Friday at a "Closing the Digital Divide" symposium on Internet Essentials, a program sponsored by Comcast that provides Internet access to low-income families for about $10 a month. The symposium was at the Comcast building on Island Street.

McLaughlin told the New Hampshire Union Leader that it is an "economic imperative" that children from low-income families have access to the Internet at home. But, he said, many people don't have the money to pay for it, especially families where parents worry about how they are going to keep their children fed.

He said that, on a visit to a Manchester elementary school, a young teacher told him she had graduated from the University of New Hampshire and was excited about giving computer assignments to her students. However, she told McLaughlin, many of the children — rather embarrassed — explained they did not have a computer at home, and the teacher had to change her assignments to accommodate everyone.

McLaughlin, along with Paul Resta of the University of Texas, who heads up a global task force for UNESCO on technology and education preparation, and others, are in talks with the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas to put together a pilot program so that low-income families can get loans to pay for computer equipment and Internet access. It is a question of digital equity, McLaughlin said.

He is involved in the project on his own time.

About two years ago, to close the divide between the haves and have-nots, Comcast established Internet Essentials to provide nearly 1,000 New Hampshire families with Internet access for about $10 a month and a subsidized netbook — Dell or Acer — for $150. Originally, the family of any child who qualified for a free school lunch was eligible, but that was expanded to any family whose child qualified for a subsidized lunch, said Mark Reilly, senior vice president of government affairs for Comcast's Northeast Division.

The company also increased its speed for Internet Essentials customers up to 5 Mbps downstream and up to 1 Mbps upstream, more than tripling the download speed since the program began.

Reilly said surveys of those families using Internet Essentials show 98 percent of the children were using it for homework and that grades improved for 94 percent of them. Additionally, 59 percent of the adults were able to find jobs by applying online.

The program also includes instructions on how to use the Internet via print, online or in person. Anyone can access the program online at internetessentials.com.

Reilly said that, in Manchester, only 20 percent of those living in the inner city have Internet access at home. That compares to Bedford where 100 percent of residents have broadband, he said.

Comcast's Internet Essentials was an effort to bridge that digital divide.

"Broadband is a critical ingredient for academic success," said Virginia M. Barry, commissioner of the state Department of Education. "I appreciate the vision of local school departments from the city of Nashua to the city of Portsmouth to support this initiative and encourage more families to get online. And we are grateful to Comcast for being a valuable partner in not only offering this important Internet Essentials program, but by providing digital literacy training as well. Having widespread Internet access in every home possible will ensure that our children have brighter opportunities in the future."

Comcast provides all schools and libraries, where its service is available, with free broadband service.

Since the program began, more than 220,000 low-income families nationwide — about 900,000 people — now have a broadband connection at home through the program.


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