Moving the 'Internet Essentials' ball

Comcast senior VP David Cohen filed a six-month report on the company's Internet Essentials project yesterday. While the results were ... less than overwhelming, Comcast is ready to implement "key enhancements" to the project, designed to deliver low-cost internet access and computers to needy kids.

In his posted memo, Cohen expressed some sense of success that the program has been publicized to more than 4,000 school districts and over 30,000 schools in Comcast's national service footprint.

But read on and you'll see that the actual number of families who've signed up for the $9.95 a month service - 41,000 - works out to 1.33 pupils per school. And in a conference call with reporters, Cohen allowed that just 463 families here in Comcast's home town have signed up for the deal.

Issues they need to address:

1. Take the message to the trenches. I've got anecdotal evidence that touting the cause to the big cheeses at a school district doesn't mean the fabulous offer will filter down to individual schools and teachers who care. A couple months after the Internet Essentials project was launched here, I got to talking about it with the guy selling me a new computer, who also works as a teacher at a North Philadelphia public school. He hadn't heard word one about it.

2. Gotta widen the user base. Initially, Internet Essentials was only available to families with children eligible to receive free lunches under the NSLP program. In the second quarter of 2012, Cohen says, eligibility will be extended to families with children who qualify for reduced price school lunches.

3. Cut the paperwork. Comcast also says it will "streamline" the sign up process, in part by offering instant approval to all students at schools with a high percentage of free lunch participants. The company also has taken to sending reminders out to families who fail to return applications for Internet Essentials. If really sincere in pushing this cause, I'd suggest Comcast send qualified representatives to parents' night at schools (or maybe even their homes?), to assist in the applications preparation, get the job done there and then.

4. Cut the red tape. Comcast will also be giving community based organization partners the ability to purchase Internet Essentials in "bulk" to then distribute to needy families. Hopefully, that will work around some reasons Comcast has had for rejecting  Internet Essentials applicants - including customers who had past due Comcast bills or who had ever signed up for internet service before. 

5. Improve the offering. Also during the second quarter, Comcast will double the speed of the broadband connection provided with Internet Essentials to "up to 3 Mbps downstream and up to 768 Kbps upstream." That should make the service more responsive, more magical, and will allow video to stream smoothly through the "pipe." Hopefully, Comcast will also go shopping for more powerful computers to offer to Internet Essentials customers at a supposedly "subsidized" price of $150. The little Atom processor powered netbooks they've been pushing at that price are certainly cute and easily transportable by students, but the small, 10 inch display is short on impact/readibility and the chip set is sluggish. No wonder only 5,500 customers have jumped for the "deal."