Comcast’s Internet Essentials: $10-a-Month Service for Low-Income Families

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If you live in an area served by Comcast and your kids receive free lunches at school through the National School Lunch Program, you may qualify for a new Internet service from Comcast, which costs just $9.95 a month.

Along with the requirements above, to be eligible for the specially discounted service, dubbed Internet Essentials, you must also not have signed up for a Comcast Internet hookup over the last 90 days, and you must not have an overdue Comcast bill or still be hanging onto Comcast equipment that’s supposed to be returned.

To sign up for the service, call Comcast (1-855-846-8376) and request an application sent in the mail. Internet Essentials will be available starting with the 2011-2012 school year, it’ll be available for signups over the next three school years, and it’s guaranteed to remain priced at $9.95 per month so long as the subscriber has a child receiving free lunch at school and doesn’t close or violate the terms of the Comcast account. Comcast is also selling laptops to eligible families at a discounted price of $149.95, and is offering free Internet training to boot, all part of the new initiative.

Why is Comcast being so generous? The explanation it’s spreading is simply this:

We want to bring the power of the Internet to more students and families across the country.

That’s a nice idea. But Comcast also wants to get the OK for its merger with NBC-Universal, and the Internet Essentials program helps that cause, as Mashable explains:

While this project seems like a goodwill initiative on part of the giant communications provider, it is actually a by-product of the Comcast-NBC merger, in which the company agreed to “increase broadband deployment in low income households” as one of a number of conditions to the acquisition.

Not all “low income households” are eligible, though. As many commenters have complained at sites like The Consumerist, to be eligible for Internet Essentials, you must not only be poor but also have children. Low-income childless couples, singles, and the elderly are all left out.

(MORE: Comcast’s New Name: Rated X?)

But poor residents who can’t sign up for cheap Internet service may still be eligible for free cell phones—free minutes too.

Last week, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that two companies, Assurance Wireless and SafeLink Wireless, give free cell phones to the poor throughout most of the country. How do these programs work? Well, have you ever noticed a curious fee marked “Universal Service Fund” on your cell phone bill? The money collected helps cover the costs of phone service in libraries, schools, and many rural areas. It also pays for cell phones and free minutes for poor residents who are eligible for programs like Medicaid or food stamps.

The free cell phone programs have been around for years, but the Tribune-Review story kicked off a firestorm of media coverage—particularly by the right, decrying the concept that “cell phones are now a civil right.”

(MORE: Simple Hacks to Cut Your Cell Phone Bill in Half)

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.