RIVER ROUGE — Comcast Friday announced an expansion of Internet Essentials, a year-old broadband adoption program designed to help close the Digital Divide for low-income Americans.

The announcement was made at the Walter White Community Resource Center in River Rouge, part of the Guidance Center, a 54-year-old nonprofit serving 21 Downriver communities with 40 major programs, including the largest Head Start program in Wayne County, with 1,600 students.

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“The Internet Essentials program offered by Comcast really hits at the heart of the mission of the Guidance Center,” saiod Guidance Center COO Shannon Bannon.

Internet Essentials offers low-income families Internet service for $9.95 a month, and a voucher for a $149 Netbook computer.

“When we started this program a year ago, we didn’t really know what would happen,” said Bret Perkins, Comcast vice president for external and government affairs. “We knew it was a big idea. We knew it could be something great. I’m here to report that we’re on our way to doing that.”

All told, more than 100,000 families nationwide, representing more than 400,000 people, have taken advantage of the program in its first year. Among those are more than 3,600 families in the Detroit area.

“Lots of efforts to bridge the Digital Devicde depend on building new networks or building large organizations,” Perkins said. “What I like about this program is that 100 percent of the dollars go to providing affordable broadband to families that need it. We leverage our network, which already exists.”

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Since the program’s inception, it’s also been improved. Among the additions:
* Expanded eligibility. When the program was established only families of children eligible for free school lunches could participate. Now, families of both free and reduced-price lunches are available.
* The speed of the $9.95-a-month Intenet service has been doubled to 3 megabits per second download.
* The free Internet safety software that’s part of the program has been expanded to include the Constant Guard Protection Suite, which includes Norton Security, identity theft protection and more.
* Online training that’s part of the program has been expanded to training videos from celebrities on NBC and Telemundo.

Comcast has also introduced a bulk order program that empowers community-based organizations to purchase Internet Essentials accounts so they can connect the eligible families they serve. All that’s required is a commitment to buy Internet service for 20 students for six months, about a $1,200 investment.

The Guidance Center also announced a bulk order for five of the netbook computers, and donated the first one during Friday’s announcement to a pregnant teen who’s a senior at River Rouge High School and who had no Internet access at home.

In MetropolitanDetroit, Comcast is working with a growing network of community-based organizations to spread the word about Internet Essentials and provide digital literacy training. Those organizations include ACCESS, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys & Girls Clubs, Detroit Parent Network, Focus: Hope, The Guidance Center, Organization of Chinese Americans, and the Urban League, among others.

Comcast will sign up eligible families in the program for at least three years, through the end of the 2013-2014 school year. Any household that qualifies during this three-year period will remain eligible for Internet Essentials if at least one child eligible for a free or reduced lunch remains living in the household.

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To learn more about the program, visit www.internetessentials.com. The Spanish language version is www.internetbasico.com.