Low-income families could benefit from Comcast Corp.'s deal to purchase control of NBC Universal Inc.
In a last-minute concession to the Federal Communications Commission, the company agreed to offer Internet service for $9.95 a month to families in its cable-franchise areas who participate in the National School Lunch Program.
The current stand-alone rate for Comcast's "economy-tier" Internet service is $24.95 a month, the company said Monday. The nationwide initiative, Comcast Broadband Opportunity Program, would be launched within nine months of closing the merger with NBC Universal.
Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice said Monday that the cable giant expected "several hundred thousand families will be eligible" for the program. The $9.95 monthly rate would last for three years and would be for new broadband customers.
The National School Lunch Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, served 31 million children with low-cost or free lunches in 2009. A family qualifies if its income is 130 percent of the federal poverty level, or $28,665 for a family of four, according to the program's website.
In addition to the $9.95-a-month broadband service, Comcast would help families who qualify purchase user-ready computers for about $150, according to an agreement the company reached with the FCC. The computers would be supplied through a third-party vendor, and Comcast would subsidize the cost to bring it down to $150.
Thousands of Philadelphia families seemingly would qualify for the program, though there seems to be one significant loophole: Those with unpaid Comcast bills may not participate, according to a Comcast letter to the FCC.
Other cities with large populations of low-income families in Comcast franchise areas include Camden, Chicago, Miami, and Washington.
"We don't have anything like this nationwide," Fitzmaurice said of the program. A family can qualify for the $9.95 Internet service without signing up for Comcast's cable-TV service, she added.
Providing low-cost Internet service was part of a raft of last-minute concessions by Comcast as it negotiated with the FCC its proposed joint venture for NBC Universal.
Comcast has proposed acquiring a 51 percent stake in the entertainment and news giant from General Electric. Both the FCC and the U.S. Department of Justice have scrutinized the deal over most of 2010.
On Thursday, top FCC officials circulated an order allowing the deal to go forward based on conditions to which Comcast had agreed. Among the major criteria for FCC approval are "public benefits" from combining the two companies.
Along with low-cost Internet service for low-income families, a new condition Comcast agreed to was arranging cooperative agreements with nonprofit news-gathering organizations and NBC-owned TV stations.
NBC Universal owns 10 local NBC affiliates in major markets around the nation, among them NBC-10 in Philadelphia. At least half those NBC stations will reach cooperative agreements with nonprofit groups within a year of the merger, Comcast said.
The model agreement is one between Voiceofsandiego.org, a 14-employee organization, and the NBC station in San Diego.
Andrew Donohue, editor of Voiceofsandiego.org, said Monday that his organization shared content with the NBC station and that it earned revenue from the arrangement.
"A lot of people are saying this is the future of journalism," Donohue said. "I'm saying it's part of the mix."