Mayor Emanuel announces new provisions for Internet Essentials program

By Mark Minton

The Internet has become essential to the American lifestyle, yet many families still struggle to afford the service. To combat that, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is collaborating with Comcast to increase Internet availability.

On Aug. 22, Emanuel announced plans for a second year of Chicago’s participation in Comcast’s nationwide Internet Essentials program, which gives low-income families access to a number of services promoting Internet literacy and access. The program seeks to bridge the digital divide by offering high-speed Internet services to qualifying families at or below the poverty-line income level of $34,575 for a family of four.

More than 1,000 community activist organizations have made effective use of the program during the last year, according to Jack Segal, Comcast’s vice president of public relations for the greater Chicago region.

“The mayor wants kids at home to have all types of opportunities,” said Tom Alexander, spokesman for the mayor’s office. “Having high-speed Internet access at home is an opportunity for children and their parents to be together, to learn together, for parents to help kids do their homework and do research online.”

Since August 2011, Comcast has signed up almost 100,000 families to Internet Essentials throughout the country. Approximately 13,000 participants are in Illinois and 7,000 live in Chicago. This year brings new services to the program, including a provision that students in participating families are eligible for the National School Lunch program, according to Segal. The program also features expanded eligibility, doubled broadband speeds and free upgraded Internet

safety software.

“The program offers services at $9.95 per month compared to the retail price of $46.95 per month, so that’s a huge difference,” Segal said. “This is not a moneymaker. It’s really meant to be a community service and a community investment program to help low-income families get a leg up.”

A 2009 University of Illinois at Chicago survey indicates that 40 percent of people earning an annual income of $10,000 or less and 62 percent of workers earning $10,000 to $20,000 have access to the Internet at home, compared to 91 percent of people earning $75,000 to $100,000 having home access.

According to Segal, 2 million families served by Comcast qualified for Internet Essentials last year. This year, approximately 2.3 million families qualify for the program. Potential candidates will not qualify if they paid Comcast’s standard broadband retail rate within the last 90 days or if they have an overdue bill or unreturned Comcast equipment.

“We believe fully that if you don’t have access to the Internet, you are at an absolute disadvantage as a student and as a family,” Segal said. “We believe there is a huge advantage to having Internet at home.”

Segal said there are approximately 95,000 eligible households across the city, of which roughly 7,000 are currently registered.

Ricardo Estrada, president of Metropolitan Family Services, a community advocacy group catering to nearly 43,000 families in Chicago, said participating in Internet Essentials could be of immense benefit to

low-income families.

“We believe 80 percent of our people will qualify because 80 percent of the people we serve make less than $20,000 a year, which is an automatic in,” Estrada said.

He said job opportunities for teens are limited and reliable home Internet access would make it easier for young people to conveniently access information for schoolwork and enter the workforce by providing access to online

job applications.

According to 2012 figures from the Federal Communications Commission, more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies require job applicants to apply online.

Alexander said many employers in Chicago are attracted to the quality of the city’s workforce and access

to technology.

“Our goal is to get information about the program to as many people as possible so that they can learn about it and, if they’re qualified, get access at home,” Segal said.