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A decade after launching a discounted Internet service for low-income and disadvantaged students and households to help win regulatory approval of its merger with NBC Universal, Comcast announced Wednesday it will invest another $1 billion in the next 10 years to broaden the reach of its Internet Essentials program to help close the digital divide between those who can and cannot afford broadband internet service at home.

Comcast, the nation's biggest cable TV provider, said Internet Essentials has grown since its launch in 2011 to provide internet service to more than 10 million American households, including service to an estimated 48,000 persons in the Chattanooga area and over 500,000 people across Tennessee.

Comcast's Internet Essentials provides internet service to qualified households for only $9.95 a month, plus the option of buying an internet-ready computer for less than $150.

Comcast said the extra investment it will put in the program over the next decade will include additional support for its ongoing Lift Zone initiative, which is projected to establish WiFi-connected spaces in over 1,000 community centers nationwide for students and adults to access free internet service by the end of this year. Comcast will also continue to buy new laptop computers for eligible persons and provide grants for nonprofit community organizations such as Tech Goes Home in Chattanooga, which helps train individuals in how to use computers and the internet.

Comcast estimates that these new commitments will impact as many as 50 million Americans in the next 10 years.

In 2021 alone, Comcast estimates students will be able to complete more than 25 million hours of remote learning lessons to further address the "homework gap" at the hundreds of Lift Zone locations that have already opened or will open soon. Comcast is planning to add another LiftZone in Knoxville and is studying future options for such a zone in Chattanooga, said company spokeswoman Sara Jo Walker.

"Ten years is a remarkable milestone, signifying an extraordinary amount of work and collaboration with our incredible community partners across the country," said Dave Watson, CEO of Comcast Cable. "Together, we have been able to connect millions of people to the power of the Internet at home, and to the endless opportunity, education, growth, and discovery it provides."

One of the partners with Comcast over the past decade, the National Urban League, said Comcast has been a leader in closing the digital divide which has proven more critical during the pandemic as more activities, learning and healthcare have shifted to online platforms.

"While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on the digital divide, for the past decade Comcast, in partnership with organizations like the National Urban League, has been leading the effort to close the digital divide, address the homework gap, and ensure low-income communities have the necessary digital skills," said Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League.

— Compiled by Dave Flessner

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