Program helps Utah's Internet have-nots join the haves
Marianna Castenada spent her first two years of high school doing homework on her mother's smartphone a frustrating experience because she didn't have access to the Internet at home.
The 16-year-old honor student will enter her junior year at East High School next week without that stress. Her family has signed up for low-cost Internet access through Comcast's Internet Essentials program.
"I would stress so much because my grades would drop ... and now I can just do it at home and be comfortable. It's like a stress reliever, definitely," Castenada said Tuesday.
Her family will pay $9.95 a month for Internet access through the program, a nationwide plan that top Comcast executives were in Salt Lake City promoting on Tuesday.
The inexpensive service is available to those whose kids qualify for free or reduced lunch at school; Internet Essentials also offers a computer for $149.99.
"Prices don't change, they're fixed," said Comcast spokesman Ray Child. "There's no equipment cost or installation fees. The whole purpose of this program is to provide a public service to these families."
Since the program began in 2011, 6,056 Utah families and 350,000 families nationwide have signed up for the deal.
Comcast can only serve families in its coverage area, which extends from Cache County on the north to Payson on the south and from Heber City on the east to Grantsville on the west.
Tom Hammon and his wife Laura Hammon have eight children with a ninth on the way, and six of them are in school.
Having Internet access at home was not in the budget until the Riverton family heard about the program two years ago from one of their children's teachers. Hammon works for the Utah Department of Transportation as an electronics technician.
"Educators will tell us over and over again that most schools now post their homework assignments online. Some school districts, homework is completely online," Child said.
The Hammon children can do OK without Internet in elementary school, but it becomes important when they are in middle school, Hammon said.
"We live in a world that demands it. We live in a world that revolves around it," Hammon said. "It opens up their (the kids') eyes to the world," Hammon said. "It allows my children to see what's going on. ... Can they live without it? Yes. Does it benefit them? Absolutely."
Internet essentials offers 5 Mbps (megabits per second) for download speed, which is a slightly lower speed than the usual startup Internet package. A comparable package without a discount would cost a family nearly $50 a month.
Hammon said the speed is sufficient for his family's needs.
"I could not afford to go to a faster program," said Hammon. "Without Internet Essentials, I wouldn't have the Internet."
The package is marketed with a "strong educational component to it, but it really is designed for the whole family," Child said.
Hammon uses the Internet to receive and pay his bills. Laura Hammon finds her gluten-free recipes online and researches illnesses when her kids are sick.
Comcast Chief Executive David Cohen on Tuesday also announced a special promotion for the program six months of free Internet for those who sign up before Sept. 20. He also said the company is allowing people with past balances more than a year old to sign up for Internet Essentials.
Cohen made the announcement at the Glendale Community Center in Salt Lake City where Comcast donated 30 laptops, 10 high-definition televisions and $5,000. Cohen also gave Castenada her own laptop.
The promotions which were also offered when the program began in 2011 come after Comcast announced its acquisition of Time Warner Cable.