Photo by Mike Mozart/Flickr

Comcast will provide free Wi-Fi connection to more than 1,000 community centers nationwide, including locations in Baltimore City, as part of a multi-year effort to close the digital divide for low-income families, the company announced on Thursday.

Comcast will be working with nonprofits and city leaders to establish “Lift Zones” where people can access the internet.

“Lift Zones are intended to help those students who, for a variety of reasons, may be unable to connect to distance learning at home, or who just want another place in which to study,” said Kristie Fox, Vice President of Communications for Comcast’s Beltway Region.

The Lift Zones are targeted towards students, Fox said, but can also be used by community members and families.

“The idea is to make it open to the community,” she said.

In addition to providing internet access, the Lift Zones initiative will also offer hundreds of hours of educational content to help students, families and site coordinators with online learning.

The first 200 zones will open this year in Atlanta; Baltimore; Chicago; Denver; Detroit; Miami; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Seattle; Trenton, N.J; Twin Cities, Minn.; and Washington, D.C.

One of the Lift Zones that Comcast is establishing in Baltimore will be at the Harvey Johnson Community Center at Union Baptist Church.

The church, led by senior pastor Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr., began its own efforts to bridge the digital divide in 2007, when it repurposed the lower level of the Harvey Johnson Community Center into a cyber center that provides internet access and training for students and senior members.

Union Baptist Church began their partnership with Comcast in 2011, when the Internet Essentials program was launched.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Hathaway immediately recognized the impact it would have on Baltimore students.

“COVID changed the landscape in our community,” he said, “Going to virtual learning was going to be another impediment for students in our community.”

Working with Comcast has been extremely beneficial to the Upton community, Hathaway explained.

“I believe that the local community has to develop a strategy that connects the disconnected people in that community that they serve to the assets that corporates and the government provide,” he said, “I don’t think it should be left up to each individual to develop their strategy, and that’s what I like about what Comcast has done.”

In August, in response to COVID-19, Comcast updated its Internet Essentials program and launched the Internet Essentials Partnership Program. The public-private partnership allows school districts and other organizations to coordinate funding to connect K-12 students to the internet.

Programs like that could help some of the tens of millions of American households that have been unable to access the internet due to unaffordable subscription plans, physical gaps in local broadband networks, and a lack of digital skills.

According to the 2018 American Community Survey, 18.1 million American households, or 15 percent, do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband internet service. Of those 18.1 million digitally disconnected households, 13.6 million live in urban areas.

In addition to geographic differences, broadband access varies by race. A Free Press report on the digital divide concluded that nearly half of all people in the U.S. without internet access were people of color.

The divide most severely impacts Black Americans. The U.S. Department of Commerce found that 36.4 percent of Black Americans do not have access to broadband or a computer, compared to 21.2 percent of white Americans.

While state and federal solutions are necessary to bridge the digital divide, addressing the issues with internet access at the community level, such as with Comcast’s Lift Zones program, may also provide important benefits.

According to a study by the Urban Institute, community-based nonprofits provide economic and social benefits directly and indirectly to low-income neighborhoods. Community development centers can provide job opportunities, supplies and services, and may serve to build a sense of community in those neighborhoods.