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SALT LAKE CITY — Marianna Castenada, a junior at East High School, has a 3.6 GPA despite the fact that she has no Internet at home.
For the past two years, Marianna and her siblings have vied for time on their mother's smartphone to complete homework assignments and write essays.
But the family's situation drastically changed this week thanks to Internet Essentials, a Comcast-funded, nationwide program designed to provide low-income families with Internet and computers at minimal costs.
"It's exciting because I have lots of friends in the area who don’t have Internet and who have struggled in the same way," Marianna said. "I think it’s a great way to serve the community."
Just in time for the school year, Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen paid a visit to Salt Lake City to bring awareness to the plan, which offers families new computers for $150 and $10-a-month Internet plans.
Since the start of the program in 2011, more than 25,000 people have been provided with Internet.
But that's not good enough for Cohen, who wants to double the program's outreach to cover all 45,000 people in the Salt Lake Valley who qualify for the benefits.
"It makes my blood boil when people tell me the digital divide is not a problem because of the ubiquitous presence of smartphones and wireless services," he said.
Cohen's mission to tackle the problem — which he deems a "personal and corporate passion" — must be handled at a local level, one student at a time.
"This is not something the city can do on their own, it's not something the superintendent or school board can do on their own, and it's not something Comcast can do on its own. It depends upon well-designed and interwoven partnerships," he said.
Students who qualify for the National School Lunch Program meet the requirements for Internet Essentials. However, the program has made two large changes to allow for even more participants just in time for the new school year.
This is not something the city can do on their own, it's not something the superintendent or school board can do on their own, and it's not something Comcast can do on its own. It depends upon well-designed and interwoven partnerships.
–Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen
Comcast is offering six months of complimentary service to qualified families, plus it is now allowing families who have been in debt to Comcast for more than a year to apply for the program. Previously, families who had incurred such debt weren't eligible.
Marianna, who was given a new computer by Cohen, was shocked thinking about how different her home life will now be.
"More of us now are actually going to need the Internet, and it's going to be much more peaceful now that we won't be fighting over my mom's phone," she said.
And Comcast came with even more in store for families in the community.
The Glendale Community Learning Center, a building designed to provide the community with more educational opportunities, was transformed after an additional donation.
The center received $5,000, 30 computers and 10 high-definition televisions, increasing the capacity of the computer lab alone by 150 percent, Cohen said.
"It’s another enhancement with another partner that helps break down the barriers that stand in the way of families that either live in poverty or have limited access to those broader resources," said McKell Withers, superintendent of the Salt Lake City School District.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker is also excited that more families will have better access to the information superhighway.
"We are still at the front edge of what we need to get done," he said. "As a community and (certainly) in the education system we have to be prepared to fill gaps that are not being addressed outside of what we can do locally."
For Becker, who believes education is the foundation for a sustainable and livable city, the future for students will completely change as the effort to bridge the digital divide continues.