by John B. Horrigan, Ph.D.
The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies was privileged to host, in collaboration with Comcast, an event on Monday, September 24, that highlighted the Internet Essentials program that Comcast has rolled out in the past year. The creation of the Internet Essentials program was a condition on Comcast’s 2011 merger with NBC Universal. Its goal is to increase home broadband adoption among families with children who are eligible for free or reduced priced lunches. Such households are eligible for an Internet access plan from Comcast that costs $9.95 per month, a computer for $150, and free training on how to use the Internet. The featured speakers at the event were Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen.
The broadband adoption problem in America is real. Roughly two-thirds of American households have broadband at home. That figure has not changed much in recent years and, in 2010, it was 68.2% according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The picture is somewhat better for families with school age children. For married couples with school age children, the home broadband adoption rate is 83.9%. For single-parent households, those headed by men had a 68.3% adoption rate and those headed by women had a 63.1% adoption rate. Some 69% of the nation’s 73.9 million children live with two parents, 27% with one parent, and 4% with no parents. The United States has about 50 million children between the ages of 6 and 17. A rough calculation based on the home broadband adoption rates for different types of families places the number of school-age children without broadband at home at approximately 11 million. With home broadband adoption rates lower for African Americans (49.9% according to NTIA) and Hispanics (45.2%), children in minority households are undoubtedly over-represented in this group of 11 million children.
With broadband’s growing importance for education, the lack of a home broadband connection is a severe disadvantage for children in these households. Internet Essentials takes aim at this gap and, as Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen said yesterday, the program has connected 100,000 families to broadband – or about 400,000 low-income Americans. FCC Chairman Genachowski added that: “When it comes to education, the costs of digital exclusion are high and rising. Increasingly, student opportunity suffers, materially, if they can’t do online assignments at home and if teachers can’t connect with families.”
The Joint Center’s Media and Technology Institute (MTI) will continue its work in understand not just broadband adoption patterns, but how the use of broadband and other technology impacts opportunity and outcomes – in education and other areas. Programs such as Internet Essentials, Connect to Compete, and the Commerce Department’s Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) represent efforts to promote inclusiveness in the use of information technology. Studying the impacts of these programs will be a key part of MTI’s work going forward.