15,000 low-income Baltimoreans getting online through Comcast program

Cable provider broadening access to $10-a-month service

September 22, 2014|By Scott Dance | The Baltimore Sun

About 30,000 low-income Marylanders, half of them in the Baltimore region, have signed up for $10-a-month Internet service, Comcast officials said Monday as they promoted broadened access to the program, now in its fourth year.

The Philadelphia-based cable service provider revealed the figures at an event at Baltimore's Digital Harbor Foundation, an after-school program it is working with to help close the digital divide. Comcast is giving the foundation free Internet service and donated more than 50 laptops to students at the event, attended by Gov. Martin O'Malley and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

While the foundation's after-school programs serving schoolchildren across the city give them a chance to access technology outside the classroom, the politicians and Comcast executives said the Internet Essentials program can broaden those opportunities, officials said.

"We don't have so much an achievement gap as an opportunity gap," said Andrew Coy, the foundation's executive director. "Removing the barriers for low-income families to access the Internet is important."

The event marked Comcast's local kickoff of the fourth year of its Internet Essentials program, which has connected more than 7,400 Maryland families with broadband Internet access, officials said Tuesday. The program has served 350,000 families, or about 1.4 million people, across the country since it launched in 2011.

The cable provider is broadening access to the program by offering amnesty to some households previously barred because of unpaid bills. They will no longer be excluded if their unpaid bills are more than a year old. It also is offering up to six months of free Internet service for anyone signing up by Sept. 30.

Program eligibility is based on whether a family qualifies for free or discounted school lunches for children. Comcast does much of its outreach through back-to-school events, parent-teacher associations and Boys and Girls Clubs, officials said.

"If you're a young person today, to develop 21st-century skills, you can't do that without access to the Internet," said David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast, which declined to place a value on its contribution to the Digital Harbor Foundation. "This program is not about financial returns; it's about social returns."

The company estimates broadband uptake is about 15 percent to 25 percent in low-income urban neighborhoods, whereas it can be upward of 90 percent in affluent suburbs, Cohen said.

Working with the Digital Harbor Foundation could help reach those children who are lacking access to the technology at home, officials said.

"Kids who don't have the Internet at home are going to be left behind, or they're not being challenged enough in school," Rawlings-Blake said.

The foundation sprouted from Coy's efforts in his own classroom at Digital Harbor High School to expose students to technology. After he got some students working on a paid Web development job and trained them in Web design, more came knocking on his door.

The foundation got its own facility in a closed city recreation center in Federal Hill 18 months ago. Now Coy is working full time to help supplement what can often be limited opportunities to access technology for city students.

"Can we expect the school system to do it alone? My answer is no," he said.

Several students who spend many weekday afternoons at the foundation's Federal Hill facility were on hand at the event to showcase the technology they have learned to develop.

Some were eager for some do-it-yourself technology.

"I've always wanted to ride a hovercraft, so I thought, why not make one?" said Brendan Shelley, a 12-year-old seventh-grader at the Calvert School.

While the design took a matter of weeks, Brendan put one together at the after-school program in just a few days using a leaf blower and a circle of medium-density fiberboard.

Students — and even some interested adults — took turns demonstrating the hovercraft, sitting in a chair on top of it and gliding across the gym floor.

"It worked out pretty well," Shelley said.

Markia Johnson, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at the National Academy Foundation School, reluctantly joined her brother at the foundation's after-school programs at first. But she learned to use electronics to make a robot out of a small brush that could dance around on a table. A drone made of propellers and brightly colored foam sat next to it, waiting for Johnson to work out bugs that keep it from flying.

"I didn't want to come, but they offered me a space." And now she likes it? "Yeah," Markia said.

Officials said they hope the investments in the foundation along with Internet access at home will broaden the horizons of students like Sierra Seabrease, a 15-year-old sophomore at Digital Harbor High School who came to the after-school programs expecting to do a lot with computers. But she ended up building a digital jukebox out of an old piano.

"I realized there is a whole spectrum" of technology, she said. "I came here, and now I'm into everything."

sdance@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ssdance

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