Across the Divide

Looking at what Comcast can do in return for Phila. franchise.

A view of the headquarters of Comcast on JFK Boulevard in Philadelphia.

Thoai Nguyen already knew how crucial the Internet was becoming, sometimes in unexpected ways, to the South Philadelphia neighborhood served by the nonprofit he runs. But the recent rollout of Affordable Care Act health-insurance policies drove it home.

For help signing up, people were steered to such groups as Nguyen's, Seamaac. And once 2013's big glitches at had been fixed, Seamaac staffers found a kink that remained: The site demanded an e-mail address for each applicant. But many of those served by Seamaac, which was founded to aid Southeast Asian refugees but now has a broad, multicultural clientele, did not have one.

"We had to sign them up for an e-mail address that they'd actually never used before and actually never used again," Nguyen said at a recent Drexel University forum. And when federal officials or insurers later sent e-mails to warn, say, that an application was incomplete, the communication vanished into the void.

That's just one example of the complications presented by the "digital divide" - the gulf between digital haves and have-nots - and the difficulty of bridging it. It's especially vast in places such as Philly, where city officials classify some poor neighborhoods as "digital deserts."

On one side are those of us adept with e-mail, and online at work, home and everywhere else through smartphones. Across the divide, that kind of connectivity might seem as fanciful as science fiction.

Right now, officials at City Hall are focused on talks with Comcast Corp. as it seeks to renew its citywide cable franchises. A key question: What can Comcast's home town, whose residents likely contribute more than half a billion dollars a year to the cable giant's coffers, seek in return - not just for the right to sell pay TV, which the law has always treated as a bit of a luxury, but for the right to sell an ever more essential service, broadband Internet, that's delivered over the same near-monopoly network?

Nguyen told his story at a forum hosted by Comcast to discuss findings by John Horrigan, hired as a consultant in 2013 to assess its Internet Essentials program. Since 2011, IE has offered $10-a-month basic broadband - too slow to meet today's federal definition - to low-income families with school-age children.

There's no question that niche deserves attention. Horrigan says nearly a third of families with school children and annual incomes under $50,000 lacked broadband in 2013. One result is a "homework gap" that could hamstring millions of kids' ability to compete.

But the need hardly stops there. Nationally, more than half of all households with earnings under $25,000 lack broadband - despite our 2010 National Broadband Plan, which portrays broadband as being as critical to the economy as electricity was a century ago. That's one reason why Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler last week proposed extending the $9.25-a-month Lifeline phone subsidies, provided to 12 million poor households, to cover voice, data, or a mix of both.

What has IE accomplished? Comcast has connected more than 450,000 low-income families since 2011, including nearly 9,000 in Philadelphia - 1 in 5 of those eligible here.

Internet Essentials is not Comcast's only digital-divide initiative. The company, which had revenue of $68.8 billion last year, says it has spent more than $225 million since 2011 on digital literacy to help more than 3.1 million people - including about 3,100 through Philadelphia partnerships.

Horrigan's research supports the importance of training - and says Internet "haves" tend to forget that they, too, once needed it. "This is a way of meeting people where they are. You don't want to just tell them that the Internet is nifty - 'Here it is, go use it.' " For some, that's learning e-mail, job skills or how to give homework help to their kids. For others, it's discovering how to share photos with far-off family.

What does this have to do with our franchise talks? Right now, the city has a chance to push Comcast to do more to meet its glaring needs. One example: The city has about 30 fewer KeySpots, which offer Internet access, training, and support, than it did just two years ago.

After Horrigan's speech, radio anchor Loraine Ballard Morrill made the point without drawing a direct connection: "All these programs are phenomenal," she said. "The thing is, they're still a little bit of a drop in the bucket."

It's worth recalling that even if Comcast is justifiably proud of it, IE didn't just spring from the goodness of its corporate heart. It was offered to help win federal approval for its acquisition of NBC Universal.

Comcast now plans to spend $1.2 billion on a shiny new "Innovation and Technology" tower here. What if it spent just a fraction of that on making its hometown into a shining example of how technology can help transform a city - pulling its schoolkids, its jobless, and anyone else who needs a boost out of the digital desert?