Slightly more than a third of all Colorado students qualify for free lunches, and starting this school year, those kids also will qualify for low-cost broadband Internet access if their neighborhoods are served by Comcast.
"A lot of families have had to make a lot of tough choices between Internet or cable, for instance, and school supplies or health care," said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children's Campaign. "For them, this will be a significant resource."
Comcast Corp.'s Internet Essentials program is the result of a long list of conditions the Federal Communications Commission attached to the cable giant's January merger with broadcast network NBC Universal. The deal requires Comcast to help provide Internet access, personal computers and digital literacy education to low-income families across the country.
But the idea was already on Comcast's agenda, as a way to help bridge the digital divide, spokeswoman Cindy Parsons said.
"The program stemmed from an earlier and very similar program we were trying to develop called Adoption Plus," she said. "The thought behind that program was to propose a two-year, public-private partnership designed to promote broadband adoption for middle school-aged children in low-income households, but it never got off the ground."
Starting this school year, Internet Essentials will provide broadband Internet at $10 a month and $149 vouchers for laptops in the 39 states where Comcast operates.
To qualify, families must have at least one child in grade K-12 who qualifies for free lunch under the federal program. Free lunch is used as a federal measure of poverty. The Internet program is not available to students eligible for reduced-cost lunches.
Families can enroll in the Internet program through the 2013-14 school year and continue to participate so long as they have a student in the free-lunch program.
The program includes free Internet training online, in print or in person.
"We have such a large ELL (English-language learner) population, that having that training also available to them, where it wasn't before, is going to create many more opportunities, and hopefully open new educational doors," said Denver Public Schools' chief operating officer David Suppes.
Some school district officials said providing the access may allow some teachers to be more creative using Internet resources that they didn't feel were widely accessible before.
In 2001, the most recent year for which data is available, 26 percent of Colorado children did not have a computer at home, according to the Colorado Children's Campaign.
"We do believe that when students have access to tools to support their learning both inside and outside of the classroom, it helps provide a richer experience," said Mapleton schools Superintendent Charlotte Ciancio. "These tools can include exposure to libraries and books, museums, safe playgrounds, etc. Technology is a growing part of the picture these days."