By John Toole
---- — Comcast is giving students from low-income families a break on high-speed Internet service.
In doing so, the communications company is helping keep students connected to their school work.
Comcast is starting the third year of its Internet Essentials program in Southern New Hampshire.
For families that qualify for free or reduced price school lunches, Comcast will provide monthly service for $9.95 and give them a chance to buy a notebook computer for less than $150.
That represents a $20 monthly savings for participating families.
“In New Hampshire, a little over 1,000 families have signed up,” said Rebecca Fracassa, Comcast’s director of community investment for the Greater Boston Region.
Across Greater Boston, about 7,000 families are participating, an estimated 220,000 nationwide.
Susan Ballard, a past president of the state chapter of the American Association of School Librarians, describes the program as a game changer.
“It’s a great program and much needed. These kids are the connected generation. They do need to have Internet access,” she said. “It’s not equitable when we can’t make that happen for all kids.”
Ballard said while working as a technology administrator with Londonderry schools she learned not every kid has access to the Internet or the same advantages as other households.
“Some families may have five people sharing a computer,” she said. “There is a digital divide.”
Kevin Verratti, the new director of technology for Windham schools, said access to the Internet matters to students.
“In an ever-wired world, this is something that definitely is bearing more importance,” Verratti said.
Comcast’s program was valued in Jaffrey and Rindge, where Verratti previously worked.
“This is a really great program,” he said. “They offered it at a price point that was just of incredible benefit to the community.”
North Londonderry Elementary School principal Mary Coltin recalled a student using the program to get Internet access.
“I think it’s a great program,” Coltin said. “I think it would be incredible for middle and high school students.”
Students regularly turn to the Internet in their schoolwork.
“Every one of my classes in school go out on the Internet,” Coltin said.
Stan Freeda oversees technology issues for the state Department of Education and said 21st-century learning requires digital tools.
“Digital learning can become an issue for students who cannot do homework, work on projects or collaborate online because they lack Internet service at home,” he said.
The Internet Essentials program helps bridge the digital divide in communities Comcast serves, he said.
“The program offers affordable high speed Internet to families with at least one child in school qualifying for free and reduced lunch,” Freeda said. “For those families, it represents the opportunity to provide Internet service for their children.”
Fracassa acknowledges the program has pleased schools and families.
“Schools are very excited about Internet Essentials,” she said. “Families are very happy to connect.”
Comcast’s own surveys show it’s not just the student who benefits.
Fracassa said 59 percent of families responded that Internet Essentials has helped someone in the house find a job.
But the company’s surveys confirm the program is making a difference in the classroom, with 94 percent of families believing Internet Essentials has helped improve a student’s grades.
Comcast is trying to grow and improve the program. The company recently announced speeds are increasing to 5 mbps.
Comcast aims to serve as many people as they can.
Company spokesman Marc Goodman said he is unaware of any retention issues among families that enroll.
He said they are eligible to participate as long as they have at least one student receiving free or reduced price meals.
So there’s no end in sight for the program.
“To meet the need,” Fracassa said. “The idea is that by supporting the entire family, we’re supporting the student.”
People who want to know more about Internet Essentials can call 1-855-8INTERNET or visit InternetEssentials.com.