Comcast announced a pilot program on Thursday to bring low-cost Internet service to public housing residents in Miami-Dade County, Nashville, Philadelphia and Seattle.
Comcast and the ConnectHome initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set up the program to reduce the digital divide. As many as 40,000 public housing residents in all four cities may be eligible, Comcast said.
At a kickoff ceremony at Rainbow Village, a 90-unit housing development in Miami, Comcast technicians stood ready to install Internet service to residents free of charge for six months. Every household in the complex also got a free laptop computer.
Normally, the low-cost service, called Internet Essentials, costs $9.95 a month for downloads speeds of up to 10 Mbps. The service comes with a free Wi-Fi router and the option to purchase a computer for less than $150. All public housing residents in the four pilot markets are eligible to apply for the service online or by calling 1-855-847-3356.
Originally, Comcast’s Internet Essentials was open to families with a child in the National School Lunch Program. The program has been expanded eight times in five years, and pilot programs have also been offered to low-income seniors and community college students, Comcast said.
The program has provided Internet connections to more than 2.4 million Americans, or more than 600,000 low-income families, Comcast said.
Comcast also said it had invested $280 million since 2011 to help fund digital literacy training initiatives and has distributed more than 47,000 subsidized computers at less than $150 each.
In a two-minute video, Comcast introduced a single mother and her young son in Philadelphia using home Internet Essentials service. The mother explains that they are from Puerto Rico and she is using the Internet service to stay connected with family and to take courses toward a master’s degree so she will be able to teach Spanish.
Despite its five-year commitment to Internet Essentials, Comcast frequently gets low scores for its customer service from consumer advocacy groups and others. The company has about 22 million Internet customers and 22 million cable TV customers.
In February, Google Fiber announced it was also working with HUD’s ConnectHome initiative and would bring free gigabit Internet service to residents of selected public housing projects in Kansas City, Mo., as well as Atlanta, Durham, N.C., Nashville and San Antonio. Google said it was absorbing the cost of providing the free service and would not depend on government subsidies.
The Obama administration and HUD created ConnectHome in July 2015 to bring Internet service and computer training to public housing residents in 28 communities nationwide.
HUD confirmed that it is not providing subsidies to low-income residents on Internet Essentials in the Comcast pilot cities nor in any of the other ConnectHome cities. HUD’s role is to connect Internet providers with low-income families.
Comcast's next-fastest tier of Internet service is called the Internet Performance tier, which offers 25Mbps downstream speeds and 5Mbps upstream and costs $60 to $70 per month, depending on the market, Comcast said.