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August 10, 2022

Internet access programs offer free, discounted service to low-income households

Business Comcast
Comcast internet programs Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Low-income households in Philadelphia can get free or discounted internet service through programs like PHLConnectED and Comcast's Internet Essentials. Families can qualify if they are eligible for certain federal aid programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income.

Programs to bring internet access to low-income Philadelphians have reduced the digital divide in the city, but the organizations behind them plan to partner with community groups to shrink it further in the upcoming school year.

“The city [of Philadelphia] and Comcast are very committed to making sure people in income-constrained households have broadband to the home,” said Stephanie Kosta, a regional vice president of government affairs for Comcast.

Comcast launched its Internet Essentials program, which offers reduced-price internet service to low-income families, in 2011. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, it helped the city develop PHLConnectED, which provides free internet access to households with students in pre-K through 12th grade.

Also in response to the pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission launched what is now the Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides low-income households with credits of up to $30 a month towards internet and mobile services. When paired with the discounts Comcast offers through Internet Essentials, those credits can enable low-income households to get internet service for free. 

Internet Essentials provides broadband service with download speeds of up to 50 megabits per second to low-income individuals and families for $9.95 per month with no annual contract. Those who want speeds of up to 100 Mbps can sign up for Comcast’s Internet Essentials Plus program for $29.95 per month. Since ACP credits can cover the monthly cost of either program, Comcast makes it easy for people applying to Internet Essentials to also apply for ACP credits so they can get service for free.

Philadelphians may qualify for Internet Essentials if they are eligible for certain federal aid programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Supplemental Security Income. Owing Comcast money used to be a disqualifier in many cases, but people with outstanding bills now may qualify if they’re approved by the end of the year. People who qualify for Internet Essentials also qualify for ACP, as does anyone who participates in one of the federal aid programs used as qualifiers for Internet Essentials.

Only households with pre-K-12 students at participating schools are eligible for PHLConnectED. Not having internet access or only being able to access the internet through a mobile phone qualifies them for the program, as does experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness. They also qualify if the students participate in remote learning in locations without internet access. If they have internet access, they qualify if they participate in one of the federal aid programs used as qualifiers for Internet Essentials or have students who are designated as “English learners” or receive special education services.

More information on PHLConnectED can be obtained by calling 211 to connect with a 24/7 hotline that can provide service in 150 languages.

The programs, along with other efforts to expand internet access to low-income Philadelphians, have proven to be effective, according to a study performed for the city last summer.

The percentage of Philadelphia households with broadband access grew from 70% in 2019 to more than 84% in mid-2021, according to “Connecting Philadelphia — 2021 Household Internet Assessment Survey,” which attributed more than half the increase to programs offering free or discounted broadband service.

The study also found that the programs were especially effective at increasing internet access in households with students from kindergarten through 12th grade, where it rose from 70% to 91%. That still leaves 9% of all households with K-12 students, or 12,000 households, without broadband service, according to Ashley Pollard, the city’s K-12 digital access program manager.

To reach them, and to boost awareness of Internet Essentials and the ACP, the city, Comcast, and others are working with community organizations to ensure that the people those organizations serve know about all the programs offering free or discounted Internet service.

“We know that discount offers make a difference,” Pollard said. “The number one reason folks said they did not have broadband was affordability.”