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Monday, January 21, 2013

Mixed Response to Comcast in Expanding Net Access

Mixed Response to Comcast in Expanding Net Access

John Gress for The New York Times

Gale Woods and her son, Austin, in their Chicago apartment.

CHICAGO â€" At the cramped downtown office of the Community and Economic Development Association of Cook County, a line of older residents waited to apply for a federal program that helps pay for heat and other utilities. On the walls, next to posters advertising Head Start and other public services, hung posters for something called Internet Essentials.

“Is the Internet on your back to school list” read one leaflet being handed out along with information about the Women, Infants and Children program, a Health Department initiative that offers nutritional and breast-feeding support to low-income families.

Internet Essentials is not a government program, although that would be difficult to tell from the poster. Instead, it is a two-year-old program run by Comcast, the country’s largest Internet and cable provider, meant to bring affordable broadband to low-income homes.

Any family that qualifies for the National School Lunch Program is eligible for Internet service at home for $9.95 a month. The families also receive a voucher from Comcast to buy a computer for as little as $150.

The program is not charity: Comcast started Internet Essentials in order to satisfy a regulatory requirement to provide Internet access to the poor, which also happens to be one of the few remaining areas for growth for cable companies across the country. More than 100,000 households in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and other major markets have signed up for Internet Essentials.

But as the program gains popularity, the company has come under criticism, accused of overreaching in its interactions with local communities â€" handing out brochures with the company logo during parent-teacher nights at public schools, for instance, or enlisting teachers and pastors to spread the word to students and congregations.

“A company like Comcast doesn’t do it out of the goodness of their heart,” said Joe Karaganis, vice president of the American Assembly, a nonprofit public affairs forum affiliated with Columbia University.

The Obama administration has been pushing private-public partnerships as a way to make high-speed home Internet access available to the 100 million Americans who lack it.

The digital divide has traditionally been regarded as one between urban and rural areas of the United States. But only about 7 percent of households without broadband are in rural areas without the necessary infrastructure; the bulk of the rest are low-income families who cannot afford the monthly bill, or do not feel it is a necessity, according to government statistics.

“The broadband divide is a real threat to the American dream,” Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in an interview. “The costs of digital exclusion are getting higher and higher.”

Comcast set up shop in Chicago in May 2011, a few months after its $13.75 billion takeover of NBC Universal. As part of its approval for the deal, the F.C.C. required the company to devise a plan to make broadband available to the poor. Comcast reluctantly agreed, according to a person involved in the merger who could not speak publicly about private conversations. A Comcast spokesman said the company had volunteered the plan. Broadband subscriptions represent the main driver of Comcast’s $55.8 billion in annual revenue. The company and its competitors have largely reached saturation among households that can afford high-speed Internet. That leaves the poor as one of the industry’s main areas of growth.

“In the long, long run, yes, I hope we’re creating future Comcast customers,” said David L. Cohen, executive vice president of the Comcast Corporation. He added: “There’s no bait and switch here. This is a community investment.”

Before he became Comcast’s chief lobbyist and the overseer of Internet Essentials, Mr. Cohen was a prominent Democratic political consultant and aide to Edward G. Rendell, a former Pennsylvania governor.

A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2013, on page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mixed Response to Comcast in Expanding Net Access.