Last Updated: May 16th, 2014 - 12:32:22


Internet Program Could Help Many Local Students
By Sarah Steele Wilson
Oct 22, 2012, 12:59

contributed photo Kyle McSlarrow, Karen Jackson, Donna Rattley Washington, and Robert McDowell visit with a student in the computer lab at Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond.October 11

The internet can be a useful tool, but it can also be difficult for novices to navigate effectively and costly to access. Due to those barriers, a digital divide has formed between different income groups. Internet and cable giant Comcast is working to close that gap through a program that could help thousands of local students in Hopewell, Chesterfield, Prince George, Colonial Heights, Petersburg and Dinwiddie.

Kyle McSlarrow, President of Comcast/NBCUniversal, Washington D.C., recently spent a morning meeting with students, teachers and civic leaders at Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond to launch and celebrate the second year of Internet Essentials, a program that has already served 100,000 families, representing 400,000 individuals, who might not have been able to take advantage of the internet’s bounty without it.

McSlarrow said that research done by Comcast, the federal government and independent groups all yielded consistent data indicating there were three main barriers standing between low income individuals and the internet. One was the cost of internet services, and another was the cost of a computer to access those services. The third barrier was that some people with limited exposure to the web did not see how the internet could be relevant to their lives or understand how to use it.

“So, we, in partnership with the federal government and community based organizations and educators, tried to come up with a program that would target low income families where the broadband adoption gap is greatest,” McSlarrow explained. “And what we decided to do was target families who had children participating in the National School Lunch program.”

McSlarrow said the company made that selection because it was an existing program that would make it easy for families, and Comcast, to determine eligibility. It would also be a way to ensure the program was helping children, who can use the internet to conduct research for school reports or search for scholarships.

“Using that as the eligibility criteria, any place that Comcast provides service, we’re making the Internet Essentials program available and we’re trying to attack all three of those barriers,” he said.

More than 490,000 children throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia receive free or reduced-price lunch, including 3200 students in Hopewell. That figure represents 75.98 percent of the city’s students. In Petersburg and Dinwiddie respectively, 79.64 and 51.82 percent of students are participating in the National School Lunch Program. In Colonial Heights, Prince George County and Chesterfield County, between 30 and 40 percent of students in each division participate, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.

In the first year of Internet Essentials, Comcast only made the program available to students receiving free lunches, while this year it has expanded it to include those receiving reduced price lunches, a change that has opened the program up to 300,000 additional households.

To attack the existing barriers for local students, as well as hundreds of thousands of others throughout the country, Comcast is offering an internet service that usually costs $39.95 a month for just $9.95 a month. The company is also offering vouchers to provide access to notebook computers costing less than $150.

“Third, we offer digital literacy training in person, online or in print,” McSlarrow said.

McSlarrow said that the digital literacy program begins with an in-person training that explains the many uses of the internet.

“What we discovered is pretty quickly, if we could drive attendance to these seminars, folks who showed up quickly realized that the internet is a lot more than just downloading videos,” McSlarrow said. “It’s extremely important to searching for a job, to healthcare information, all the things that those of us who use broadband take for granted.”

He said that many employers, including some of the biggest and widest reaching employers, only accept applications online, meaning those without access to the internet can find themselves at a disadvantage in the job market.

Once families are online, the company has a number of videos featuring NBC talent, including Al Roker, that can teach them about how to use the internet safely and effectively, pointing them in the right direction to help them find what they’re looking for online.

“The cable industry itself is that largest internet service provider industry in America, and Comcast is the largest within that,” McSlarrow said. “So we just felt like we had a responsibility here to try to tackle this.”

“But we also knew we couldn’t do it alone,” McSlarrow added, introducing the important role community based organizations have played in bringing people into the program.

“Community based organizations are extremely important,” he said. “They’re trusted in their community and get the word out as to the opportunities that this program presents.”

McSlarrow said that Comcast is hoping to expand its network of community based partners and is always happy to hear from new organizations that want to help advance the program in their local areas. The program’s website, www.internetessentials.com, has a section devoted to providing information about partnering with Internet Essentials.

“We have thousands of community based partners nationwide now and we’re totally open and we want to add as many as possible, because this will only work if those types of organizations participate and get the word out,” McSlarrow said.

Families who have children receiving free or reduced price lunches and live in an area served by Comcast, which includes much of the region, can call (855) 846-8376, for English speaking assistance, or (855) 765-6995, for Spanish speaking assitance. McSlarrow said that the call centers also have people on hand who speak 12 other languages, so people who do not speak English or Spanish can access help.

The year-two kick off at Chimborazo was attended by FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, Richmond Mayor Dwight C. Jones and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.


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