Action United, an activist group of low- and moderate-income residents, says Comcast Corp.'s discounted Internet program for poor children needs to be improved and more heavily advertised.
Comcast launched the $9.95-a-month Internet service this school year to help close the gap in Internet access between low-income and wealthier families, a gap experts refer to as the "digital divide."
The nation's largest provider of residential Internet service agreed to the program during negotiations with the Federal Communications Commission over its purchase of NBC Universal Inc.
Based on an informal survey of 107 families, Action United said 62 percent of respondents had not heard of Comcast's $9.95-a-month service, while almost three-quarters of the respondents said they would have considered applying for it if they had been aware of it.
A top Comcast executive, David Cohen, said Tuesday that the company has partnered with nonprofit groups, distributed literature to the Philadelphia school students, and paid for advertising through African American and Hispanic media outlets to promote Internet Essentials, the name of the discounted Internet service.
"We are willing to partner with any organization with boots on the ground," Cohen said, adding that he would be happy to enlist Action United.
Action United also says that people seem to have a hard time qualifying for the service.
A family can participate if its children are enrolled in the federal school-lunch program.
Action United said that of the 107 families who qualified for the school-lunch program, only eight had applied for Internet Essentials. Two of the families were approved and Comcast was sending them paperwork, said Elly Porter-Webb, Action United parent organizer. The group says it has about 44,000 members in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Allentown.
Comcast told the other families they were not eligible because of past unpaid cable bills or because they had an existing Internet service, even though the families had children in the federal school-lunch program. "There are too many obstacles," Porter-Webb said.
The group is planning a rally at the Comcast headquarters in Philadelphia on Wednesday morning.
Cohen declined to disclose participation in Internet Essentials but said the cable company was conducting "real research to figure out the real barriers to adoption" and could alter the program based on the research.
Comcast believed, Cohen said, that it could take time to reach the population that would be most helped by Internet Essentials.