Comcast to Provide 35K Philly Households With Internet Ahead of All-Virtual Schooling

Families who are housing insecure or homeless will be provided with T-Mobile hotspots to stay connected

NBC Universal, Inc.

What to Know

  • Philadelphia schools will contact parents to see if they need services and provide them with a code to give Comcast
  • Close to 50,000 students will benefit
  • Some families will get an at-home connection. Ohers in need will get a mobile hotspot from T-Mobile.

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About 35,000 Philly households -- with about 50,000 city school students -- will be connected to the internet, and given digital skills training and tech support, ahead of an all-virtual start to the school year.

Comcast, the city and several foundations are supporting the effort to connect households with children in Philly's public, charter and Independence Mission Catholic schools. The initial focus will be on households with K-12 students and no internet access or only mobile phone access, or on people who are homeless and housing insecure.

The program, PHLConnectEd, will cost $17.1 million over two years to connect homes with Comcast's Internet Essentials program or provide T-Mobile hotspots for students who need them.

Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal, including NBC10 and Telemundo62.

"By focusing on K-12 student households now, we can have an immediate impact in bridging the digital divide, especially to support distance learning for the upcoming school year," Mayor Jim Kenney said.

"The digital divide is an extreme problem that's gotten worse" with the pandemic, said Mark Wheeler, the city's chief information officer.

The program will also connect the households with "digital navigators" who can talk parents through setting up devices and routers, and how to use them.

The schools will contact eligible parents directly to setup their connection with Comcast at home or through the mobile hotspot. More information is available here.

Students in Philly public and charter schools, and some Catholic schools, are eligible for free internet through Comcast or T-Mobile for up to two years. The school will provide them a code to give to the internet provider to start accessing the service.

“We also have to include portable options. We have a number of students who are transient, who have housing insecurities. And so we built in flexibility to make sure we have a mobile option,” said Otis Hackney, the city’s chief education officer. The goal is to have one device per student.

“That’s important, if you have multiple children in the household and all of their classes are happening at the same time, we need to make sure that all of those students have a device so they can be in their individual classroom,” Hackney said.

"COVID-19 shed light on many inequities that negatively impacted people across the country, including right here," Superintendent Dr. William Hite said in a news conference. The plan will help "all students in every neighborhood, reach their full academic potential" ahead of an all-virtual school year.

"We knew there was a significant number of students without reliable access to internet ... we needed to have all partners working together" to achieve the plan, Hite said.

The Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation, Lenfest Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation and William Penn Foundation are some of those partners. Charter school partners include Mastery, KIPP, Esperanza, Boys Latin, Independence, Philadelphia Charters for Excellence, and Richard Allen Prep Charter.

Local reaction

Much of the reaction from politicians praised the program, noting the efforts to bridge the digital divide.

"This initiative to expand reliable internet access to thousands of Philadelphians will open new doors of opportunities," Governor Tom Wolf said in a statement. "Equitable access is critical for students to build the digital skills they need for success in the classroom today and in their future careers.”

Other officials noted that the program starts with getting kids connected, but will benefit their parents too.

"The program will impact many students and help us work towards overall equity as a city," City Councilmember Cherelle Parker said. "... but we must be mindful that the digital divide is not just an issue for students. We also need a longer-term plan so everyone of all ages in a household can get connected, whether that’s to look for new job opportunities, to have telehealth appointments with their doctor, or just to connect with their friends and family to stave off loneliness."

The Movement Alliance Project called the program a win for students and families -- but added that Internet Essentials speeds need to be increased.

The home connection should be able to accommodate multiple students attending class as well as parents who could be working or applying to jobs, said the statement from policy organizer Devren Washington.

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