Comcast, one of the country’s largest communication services companies, is building a bridge across the digital divide in Pittsburgh and across the country. And for poor families, the bridge will be nearly toll-free.

Comcast Executive Vice President Steve Cohen announced the implementation of Internet Essentials during an Aug. 16 press conference at the Urban League of Pittsburgh.

BROADBAND BUDDIES—Pittsburgh Urban League President and CEO Esther Bush, left, and Pittsburgh Superintendent of Schools Linda Lane celebrate with Comcast Executive Vice President Steve Cohen as he rolls out Internet Essentials for low-income students. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

“The UN has called access to the Internet a Civil Rights issue, and I think they’re right,” he said. “The Internet can be a great equalizer and a life-changing technology, but ironically, it hasn’t because low-income families are not participating. We think of this as economic development and education reform because, in our position, it’s the easiest thing that can be done. If we can move the needle on the digital divide, maybe we can set an example, and we’ll have done something worthwhile.”

Cohen said Internet Essentials addresses the three main barriers to low-income families enjoying the benefits of Internet access; the cost of service, the cost of a home computer, and a lack of understanding of how relevant and useful the Internet can be.

U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, Pittsburgh Superintendent of Schools Linda Lane, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato and Pittsburgh Urban League President and CEO Esther Bush—whose organization will handle the digital training for the program—were also on hand to praise Comcast for its efforts to help low-income Pittsburghers enjoy the benefits of Internet access.

“This is not about the Urban League, this is about our children,” said Bush. “Comcast is providing equity, equality and opportunity. We need more efforts like Comcast’s to move our kids from where they are to where they need to be.”

The new service offers qualifying households high-speed residential service for $9.95 a month—with no price increases, activation fees or equipment rental fees.

The program also provides a voucher for $149.99 plus tax that families will use to purchase a netbook computer, through a special arrangement with the Dell and Acer computer companies.

Eligibility is based on income. To qualify households must be in a Comcast service area and have at least one child who qualifies for free lunch under the National School Lunch Program (less than $25,000 in annual income for a family of three). These households must also not have any overdue Comcast bills or unreturned equipment, and must not have subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the previous 90 days.

Comcast will sign up families for at least three years, through the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Families that remain eligible can remain in the program until the qualifying child graduates from high school.

Lane said there are 44 entire schools in the Pittsburgh Public School District that qualify for the free lunch program, Comcast developing this program will be a boon to those students.

“Many of our children do not have access to the internet on a recurring and reliable basis,” she said. “A lot of our students would qualify for this program, and for those who want it, this can be a game changer.”

(For more information or to sign up for Internet Essentials, call 1-855-846-8376.)

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