Last week NPR reported that Comcast will soon offer those who can least afford to pay for internet access a way to get online from home.  Eligible households will only have to pay $9.95 a month for a high-speed connection, giving the poor a viable way to access the information superhighway.

This affordable alternative to Comcast’s regular $50 monthly charge is a significant move when we consider how much the web now permeates everyday life.  The company should be commended for promoting greater internet access to people whom the internet revolution has left behind.

Still, we should be wary of claims that Comcast’s new plan will meaningfully narrow the digital divide.  Tackling this problem by making internet access more affordable is akin to promoting literacy by giving out free books.  The scope of the digital divide is far deeper than it may appear.  There needs to be an honest recognition of what fuels this gap in the first place.

We can start by acknowledging that the power of the internet lies not only in being able to access it but in possessing the right skill set to use it for personal advancement.  Digital inequality is much more of a sociological than a technological problem.  In order to foster greater opportunity online, several trends must be addressed:

  • Low-income parents tend to have little educational attainment.  Few have finished college and some have not even graduated from high school.
  • Their jobs tend to require little internet proficiency and do not encourage them to enhance their digital skills.
  • Their kids attend schools where the internet is used mostly as a way to master information rather than as an exploratory tool.

The timing of Comcast’s announcement, coming just a day after the U.S. Census Bureau released its bleak 2011 poverty figures, is ironic.  There are now over 46 million poor Americans, many of whom do not have home internet and most of whom lack the skills to participate in the digital revolution in the ways higher-income people can.  The time is ripe for an initiative in the spirit of Comcast’s, just one that gets to the heart of the problem.  The company’s intention to send its new customers “digital literacy” kits just won’t cut it.