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Children and families who struggle to pay for internet could receive cheaper internet through Comcast's Internet Essentials program, aiding them in school and leveling the playing field among their peers.

An expansion of the program, which was announced July 15, allows families living in Housing and Urban Development-assisted housing to apply for the program, which offers high-speed internet to low-income families at $9.95 per month. The program also offers a subsidized computer to families for less than $150.

The initiative was made to help decrease the digital divide, David Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast, explained during a conference call to announce the expansion. Cohen said children without internet at home are unable to do online assignments for school, and parents are unable to do things like search for jobs, get their GED or take online classes.

York Housing Authority Executive Director Regina Stone-Mitchell said the announcement would help many families in York City, particularly those with children who are turning to a library to complete their schoolwork. The housing authority is creating a packet to distribute to families this summer detailing the announcement and its benefits.

Pennsylvania is one of the top 10 states that will benefit from this initiative, and Philadelphia ranks second in the nation for HUD-assisted households in Comcast's service area. York City has 948 families signed up for Internet Essentials, with approximately 1,500 households signed up in York County as a whole, according to Robert Grove, vice president of public relations for Comcast.

Grove estimated that 3,180 households receive HUD assistance in York County. Comcast said it hopes the expansion will increase the number of low-income families it is serving.

Internet in York: According to Deb Sullivan, the community relations director for York County Libraries, 2,659 children used computers at the Children's Library within Martin Library 15,547 times between January and June in 2016. Among older kids, 904 teens used computers in the Teen Forum at Martin Library a total of 5,694 times in the same time period.

While there is no way to tell how many of the children and teens used the computer because they lack internet access at home, a number of them likely are turning to the local library to work on school projects, do research, play games and browse social media, according to Laura O'Grady, director of development at York Libraries. Numbers provided by York Counts from 2015 state that 39.8 percent of children in York City School District were living in poverty, where O'Grady says the librarians see a lot of kids because they are within walking distance.

"Kids with no computer at home are at risk of falling into the digital divide," O'Grady explained. "One of the great things about the library is that everyone is equal here. There is no divide."

The district with the second-highest percentage of children living in poverty was Hanover Public School District at 19.6 percent. According to Sullivan, 2,314 children used the computers at Guthrie Memorial Library 7,408 times from January to June in 2016, while 1,063 teenagers used the computers 3,192 times during the same time period.

O'Grady said students who go to the library for their schoolwork often end up with richer research and better projects because the librarians assist them in finding information they might not find on their own. Libraries in York County often coordinate with the school districts so that librarians are aware of upcoming projects and assignments to better help the students that come to them.

Having internet access isn't only important for succeeding in school, though. O'Grady said it's important that children and teens have the same social and recreational opportunities as their peers, such as being able to play games like "Pokemon Go."

"Even besides schoolwork, it's about recreation and kids being able to participate in things their peers can," O'Grady said. "And we do have two Poke stops at the library, if anyone's wondering."

Internet Essentials: The initiative is supported by both Comcast and the HUD's ConnectHome initiative. A news release stated that up to 2 million HUD-assisted homes, including public housing, housing choice voucher and multifamily programs, will have access to the internet service.

The news release explained that this is the ninth time in five years Comcast has expanded its Internet Essentials program, but this is the first time homes across the nation will be able to partake in Internet Essentials regardless of whether they have children eligible to receive a free or reduced lunch from the National School Lunch Program.

The program was initially only offered to families with children participating in the lunch program and expanded to include students in parochial, private, charter schools, private schools and homeschooled students. Later, a pilot program was established for low-income seniors and low-income community college students. Earlier this year, another pilot program extended Internet Essentials to families living in public housing in Miami, Nashville, Philadelphia and Seattle.

"This announcement reaffirms Comcast's determination to make a meaningful impact to close the digital divide for low-income families in this country," Cohen said during the conference call.

For families in York County, the announcement is a step in the right direction, according to O'Grady.

"The easier it is to access the internet, the better," she said. "Whatever we can do in the library or through providers like Comcast to lower the barriers, I'm in favor of."

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