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Comcast expands Internet Essentials to all low-income veterans, signs up nearly 20K Philadelphia families in last year

Comcast's Internet Essentials program has been expanded to include all low-income veterans.

Comcast Center and  Comcast Technology Center, left, are shown in Center City Philadelphia. Sunday, June 3, 2018.
Comcast Center and Comcast Technology Center, left, are shown in Center City Philadelphia. Sunday, June 3, 2018.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO

Comcast has expanded its low-cost high-speed internet program by adding nearly 20,000 low-income Philadelphia households and two million households nationally over the last year, the company announced Monday.

At the same time, the company announced that its Internet Essentials program will now include all low-income veterans living in its service area.

"Veterans have stood up for our country, and for our way of life, and we believe it's time for all of us to stand up for those veterans," said David L. Cohen, Comcast's senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer, speaking at a news conference Monday at a new housing community for veterans under construction near Fairhill. The expansion "will enable us to reach about a million low-income veterans."

Still, some advocates are calling for Comcast to do more.

While "we should ensure [veterans] have broadband internet access along with other necessary services," the program still "doesn't go far enough to meet the need," wrote Bryan Mercer, executive director of West Philadelphia's Media Mobilizing Project, which advocates for greater media access for working-class people.

"We need to see much more substantial investment in communities and options to address the gaps and ensure the modern right to communicate," Mercer said.

He said Internet Essentials offers "speeds that don't even meet the FCC definition of broadband" and a "series of restrictions" that take away the program as an option for people who struggle to afford service. Families and veterans with Comcast service within the last 90 days, or any outstanding bills, would not qualify for the program, he said.

"That is a real roadblock to someone trying to keep their utilities affordable and their families online," Mercer said.

Jennifer Bilotta, a Comcast spokesperson, said that all Philadelphians who had Comcast in the last 90 days could still join Internet Essentials, thanks to a commitment the company made in late 2016.

Bilotta also disagreed that speeds don't meet the FCC definition, and said the program offers speeds that are enough for homework, research, applying for jobs and more.

"There's nothing you can't do online with 15 mbps download speeds," she said.

Outside of Philadelphia, the 90-day stipulation still exists, mostly to encourage people who have never had internet service to sign up.

About 36,000 low-income veterans are in the commonwealth, Cohen said, and 70 percent of low-income veterans don't have internet access at home.

The program is meant to cut out a common roadblock to internet service, high costs, in the nation's poorest big city, where thousands live in poverty. Philadelphia is one of America's least-connected cities, and also home to the nation's largest internet provider.

Cohen also announced a $25,000 grant to go toward a computer lab in a new veterans housing community being built by the nonprofit Veterans Multi-Service Center.

The nonprofit is converting the old Edison High School near Fairhill into a housing community for veterans. The community, which will be called Edison 64, will offer 66 housing units, with on-site services including case management, job training and more, said Cohen, who spoke at the site.  Sixty-four of the school's graduates died in the Vietnam War,  the highest number of deaths recorded by any U.S. high school, according to the center.

The hope for the center is "to keep people in their housing," said Tim Williams, executive director of Veterans Multi-Service Center.

Keith Higgins, who was in the military, said he still knows plenty of veterans struggling to live, but the housing and expanded services could be the "perfect opportunity for a lot of veterans to get up on their feet."

"It's needed," Higgins said.

The Germantown native said he was "glad corporations are stepping up and helping the older generations of veterans out."

Over the course of the internet essentials program, more than six million homes nationally and 200,000 Philadelphians have used the service. Those qualifying generally need to be on some kind of public assistance, the firm's website said.

Nearly half of all adults with an income below $30,000 don't have home broadband service or a traditional computer, a 2017 Pew Research study said.

Comcast agreed to finance the program in 2011 as part of its NBCUniversal acquisition. That commitment expired in 2014 but the company has committed to funding it indefinitely, a spokeswoman said.

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