Private Sector Strives to Close Digital Divide

The Internet is no longer a luxury—it is essential. The Internet brings not only all the modern conveniences—the ease of paying bills online or shopping from anywhere at anytime—but it also provides a vital resource for students to do their schoolwork, for the unemployed to search for jobs, and for senior citizens to live safely and comfortably.

Despite the benefits the power of the Internet provides, one in five American adults still do not use the Internet. Senior citizens and individuals earning less than 30,000 per year are high on the list for least likely to have Internet access. While cost is prohibitive to Internet adoption in some cases, nearly half of adults choosing not to use the Internet do so because they do not see how going online is relevant to their lives. Additionally, many adults without a broadband connection at home simply lack the technological savvy.

Private companies and successful public-private partnerships like Connect2Compete are simultaneously tackling the knowledge gap and monetary barriers to Internet adoption among U.S. adults. This past week, Comcast announced year three of the Internet Essentials program, which is the nation’s most comprehensive broadband adoption initiative for low-income families.

In less than two years, Internet Essentials has connected approximately 900,000 low-income Americans with an at-home Internet service. The program also seeks to bridge the digital divide by targeting a seldom-acknowledged barrier to at-home broadband connection: computer ownership. The number of Americans who own a smartphone—9 in 10—has far outpaced the number of Americans with a laptop or desktop computer in the home. The Internet Essentials program is beginning to address this issue and has distributed 18,000 subsidized computers.

For students today, digital literacy is a vital skill. The Pew Research Center found that digital technologies are increasingly central to activities both in and out of the classroom, but that schools in low-income areas are less likely to incorporate new technologies into the curriculum. Not surprisingly, doing homework is the most popular use—98 percent—of the Internet for Internet Essentials customers.

Internet Essentials and similar programs are also helpful in facilitating job search efforts, using the Internet to assist potential employees in reaching future employers. Over half of Internet Essentials customers use their Internet to search and apply for jobs and the Internet Essentials job resources teach customers how to maximize their job search benefits.

The success of the Internet Essentials program has not stalled, for in the past six months alone 70,000 new families have signed up for the service and 20,000 people received training. And, this year, Comcast will improve the program in terms of both offerings and streamlined enrollment. Internet Essentials broadband speeds will increase—as it has for the past two years—and eligibility is now expanded to homeschooled, cyberschooled and private school students, among others.

In order to help customers realize the opportunities of the Internet, Comcast has partnered with thousands of community-based organizations, including United Way, Teach for America, Big Brothers Big Sisters and the National Urban League. Fortunately, Comcast is not the only company actively working to close the digital divide. Companies like Time Warner Cable, Cablevision and CenturyLink similarly provide a comparable discounted service for low-income Americans. Smart public-private partnerships like Internet Essentials and Connect2Compete are making—and will continue to make—a real difference in communities, families and lives by bringing America one step closer to closing the digital divide.