Comcast will offer $10 monthly Internet access and $149 computers to low-income Chattanooga-area school children as part of a plan to close the "digital divide."
The offer from the nation's largest cable company could affect as much as 58 percent of Hamilton County enrollment, or about 24,400 students.
Unusually for an Internet service provider, there won't be any activation or modem fees and users can quit the program anytime.
Families qualify for the program, which the company calls Internet Essentials, if at least one child receives free school lunches through the federal School Lunch Program, and if they don't already subscribe to one of Comcast's other Internet offerings.
"This isn't a promotional rate, and it's not a product we normally offer," said Jim Weigert, vice president and general manager for Comcast's Chattanooga operation.
Comcast found that broadband access for families making less than $30,000 was half that of families making more than $30,000, a so-called "digital divide," Weigert said.
"We found that people had a lower adoption rate of broadband because they couldn't afford it, they couldn't understand the value, and they didn't understand the Internet itself," he said.
That's why the cable giant decided to partner with schools, using the school lunch program as a yardstick to get the word out to parents with low incomes.
Weigert's four sisters were teachers and his father served as a school board member for 30 years, so he's familiar with the advantages of digital communication and learning versus traditional homework assignments, he said.
"Students come home with a piece of paper and it gets left on the bus, or depending on what it is, the kid may not want parents to have it," Weigert said. "This way, there are kids who will do better, and parents who will be more engaged."
With online tools, parents can track student attendance, homework assignments and test scores, in many cases, and students can access digital libraries of information and videos that can augment classroom instruction, he said.
Previous efforts to bridge the gap in Web usage between the wealthy and the poor have not always been successful, even when companies have given away free Web access. Even with free Internet service, some families struggle to afford the cost of a home computer.
In this case, Comcast will send a refurbished but functional laptop to qualifying families willing to pony up $149, a deep discount from most commercial options.
"This time will be different because of the price point they're bringing it in at," said James McKissic, vice president and chief operating officer of the Urban League of Chattanooga. "The parent does need to make an investment, but $10 per month is very reasonable."
Comcast's typical standalone Internet starts at $30, and can increase with installation and modem fees.
"There are videos on YouTube that teachers have put up explaining concepts and formulas and that's an extra boost and an extra help to young people," he said. "If you live in a household without Internet access, you don't have access to those extras."
Other household members can use the family's connection too, he explained.
"Most job and employment research is online, and a lot of people will only accept your application as an online application or e-mail attachment," McKissic said. "That's a benefit for the whole household."
Comcast says the offer will expire when the family no longer has a child in school, and enrolling takes two to three weeks.
In the meantime, the price is locked in at $9.95. That's because the program is part of a deal inked with federal regulators, who conditionally allowed it to buy NBC Universal earlier in 2011 if it agreed to extend broadband service to more people.
SPREAD THE WORD
The trick will be getting the word out to parents who are off the grid.
Hamilton County Schools' Lakweshia Ewing is already brainstorming on how to alert parents to the opportunity, even though the fall semester is already in full swing.
Email blasts and PTA meetings won't work here, since some of the families who need Internet service the most can't be reached this way. So Ewing is thinking outside the box.
"We want to make sure that we're maximizing on it, not just a flier that goes home," she said.
Ewing wants to work with church, nonprofit groups and corporate partners to get the message out.
"What you find is, you may have a parent who never interacts with the school, but they go to the doctor, they go to the hairdresser," she said.
Once students have access to the Web, it opens up a world of possibilities, Ewing said, even raising test scores.
Some schools already offer curricula that require the establishment of email accounts, and provide Wikipedia-esque resources, blogs and even reading lessons to students who are online.
Though digital instruction is "nothing new" to Hamilton County Schools, "the unfortunate thing is, as you look at scores, it is those schools that are lower performing that don't have this additional access to these strategies that are computer-based," she said.
To "attack the student achievement gap," administrators will have to work hard to close the technology gap.
"What you're offering now is a student the ability to engage with the things they're already experiencing school in a home setting," she said. "This is just expanding those things to the kids that don't have those privileges."