The city of Houston has launched a program to provide roughly 5,000 residents vouchers for a year of free internet through Comcast, a move aimed at helping low-income Houstonians go online amid the coronavirus pandemic.
City residents are eligible if their household income at the start of the year totaled less than 80 percent of the area median income, or $63,050 for a four-person household. Additionally, applicants must be over 65, disabled, part of a household with children younger than 5, or between the ages of 16 and 24 while not enrolled in school or working.
The program, funded by $624,960 of the city’s allotment of federal COVID-19 aid, follows similar local internet programs targeting low-income school children. Officials on a city task force formed to help vulnerable communities cope with the pandemic “realized there were critical groups that were being overlooked,” Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office said in a news release.
“The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19,” said Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
Bob Sanborn, chief executive of the education nonprofit Children at Risk, said many preschool-aged kids have been forced to learn from home during the pandemic, which typically requires their parents to have internet access.
“We know that for low-income kids, if they don’t have quality early education, including quality pre-K, that their ability to succeed academically is significantly hindered,” Sanborn said.
The program includes the same benefits as Comcast’s “internet essentials” plan — a $9.95 monthly deal for those who qualify for housing and food assistance, Medicaid and other programs.
Customers who already use the plan still may apply for the city program, though they cannot have had a different Co
mcast plan within the last 90 days. Residents who use a different internet provider are eligible, according to Turner’s office.
Program participants will be charged a $9.95 monthly fee to continue their internet service beyond the free year if they do not cancel, according to a news release from Comcast, which said it plans to notify customers before the year is up. The monthly data limit is 1.2 terabytes.
City officials are distributing the vouchers on a first-come, first-served basis. The deadline to redeem the vouchers is Dec. 20. For information on how to apply, click here.
Houston received $405 million in COVID-19 relief funds earlier this year through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Turner’s administration has until the end of the year to exhaust the funds.
Last month, city council approved spending $800,000 in CARES Act funds to buy 1,900 computers, which will be distributed to residents who meet the same criteria as the internet program.
In August, Harris County Commissioners Court voted to spend up to $32 million in coronavirus aid on more than 200,000 devices, such as Chromebook laptops, and more than 80,000 WiFi hotspots for school districts across the county.
In Houston, 23 percent of households do not have a broadband internet subscription, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“We used to think that the digital divide had evaporated because we saw a lot of families with smartphones,” Sanborn said. “But what we’ve learned is that learning can’t happen with three kids and one smartphone.”
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