Cable and Internet provider Comcast has launched a program to provide affordable high-speed Internet access to low-income families that have at least one child receiving free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program.

According to Community Broadband Networks, “as a condition of its massive merger with NBC, the federal government is requiring Comcast to make affordable Internet connections available to 2.5 million low-income households for the next two years.” The organizaton adds that “it was only after the federal government mandated a low-cost option for disadvantaged households that Comcast realized everyone could benefit from access to the Internet.”

Community Broadband Networks provides “news, information, research, and connections to the nation-wide movement of building broadband networks that are directly accountable to the community they serve.”

The Miami Herald reported last week that the Miami-Dade School district will partner with Comcast to offer needy families discount high-speed Internet, computers and training.

The Herald adds:

“Access to the Internet is akin to a civil rights issue for the 21st Century,” said David Cohen, Comcast executive vice president. “It’s that access that enables people in poorer areas to equalize access to a quality education, quality healthcare and vocational opportunities.”

The digital divide — low or no access to basic affordable high-speed Internet — has philanthropic organizations and local communities working for solutions.

The Ford Foundation’s 2010 Annual Report (.pdf) says that millions of Americans still lack fast and affordable broadband.

The report argues:

We believe that affordable, high-speed Internet is an essential part of our national infrastructure—as important to the health of communities as clean water, highways or the electrical grid. We work with partners around the country to help ensure that reasonably priced, high-speed Web access develops as a right and a resource for all Americans and all communities, affluent or low-income, urban or rural.

The Foundation report adds that “questions are emerging, for example, about the lack of market competition, and what appears to be the resulting failure of companies to provide affordable, highspeed service in rural and working communities. Some localities are responding by establishing municipal broadband networks that meet the infrastructure needs of their citizens and ensure that local businesses and families are not left behind.”

Community Broadband Networks says that because they need high-speed Internet solutions for 20 years, not just two, communities are building their own next generation networks. The organizations provides a map that shows eight Florida communities that have publicly owned broadband networks.

One of the eight, Palm Coast FiberNET, started with requests from Palm Coast businesses who asked for access to the existing city-owned fiber network constructed to lower the cost of telecommunications for the city and to connect city facilities (e.g. fire stations, water plants, parks, etc.). The goal of the Palm Coast FiberNET project is to help lower the cost of telecommunications for existing businesses in the city, and to help attract new businesses and jobs.

The website also explains that Palm Coast will not sell broadband services, it will build and maintain these new digital roads, used by private businesses to deliver broadband services: “This is consistent with the City’s view that local government should not compete with the private sector. This approach creates unlimited opportunities for telecommunications services.”

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